February 07, 2018

Grant to add 19 new Alabama telehealth locations

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eric wallace monitor 2018Eric Wallace, M.D., says expanding telehealth sites will provide speciality care to an increasing number of patients.Many patients who live in rural areas will not have to travel as far to see their doctors thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal agency granted the University of Alabama at Birmingham $495,877 to grow its telehealth network. 

Access to health care is limited in many of the state’s rural counties. Death rates from cardiovascular and oncologic illnesses, and diabetes are significantly higher for rural Alabamians than for those living in urban areas. The majority of Alabama’s medical specialists are located in the state’s larger cities; but a large percentage of the state’s population lives outside those areas, making it difficult for them to receive care. 

The USDA Rural Utilities Services Grant will reduce this disparity by funding telehealth equipment that enables patients to meet with their doctors without spending hours traveling to and from appointments. The equipment will go to nine hospitals and 10 Alabama Department of Public Health county health departments.  

Eric Wallace, M.D., medical director of Telehealth at UAB, believes expanding telehealth will save lives and improve quality of life and health care outcomes in Alabama. 

“There are so many patients in our state who have little to no access to subspecialty care like nephrology, and that’s the reason we are doing this,” Wallace said.

To enable virtual connections between patients and specialists, doctors, like Wallace, work with an IT team and UAB Medicine Executive Director of Telehealth Bart Kelly to develop an infrastructure that connects UAB doctors with patients at facilities across the state.

“The specialties that are best suited for telemedicine right now are largely image-based and lab-based, where the physical exam is important but targeted, and there are already telemedicine solutions in place."

With the help of a nurse and videoconferencing, patients are able to have a full checkup with their doctors closer to home. Wallace, a UAB School of Medicine nephrologist, was the first U.S. physician to use telehealth to replace a comprehensive face-to-face visit for home dialysis patientss. He uses a high-definition camera and a Bluetooth-enabled stethoscope to examine a patient on dialysis. A nurse who is at the telehealth site with the patient draws blood and sends it off to a central lab for testing.

However, this type of medicine is not ready for every specialty. Wallace emphasizes that making sure the care is equal to in-person visits is vital.

“The specialties that are best suited for telemedicine right now are largely image-based and lab-based, where the physical exam is important but targeted, and there are already telemedicine solutions in place,” he said.

Telehealth as it is today in Alabama would not have been possible without partnering with the ADPH. UAB applied for the grant with the state’s Department of Health and the nine hospitals that will receive equipment. Each group contributed to try to match the grant, ending with a total of approximately $750,000 to go toward expanding the program.

The ADPH began the telehealth network in 2015 with four locations. Today, UAB is working with 30 county health departments that are equipped with the technology. Wallace says a total of 50 sites will be running by the end of the year. He believes the growth of the program will only help support community physicians and hospitals.

“If we can provide specialty care in rural communities, it will help enable community physicians to care for their patients locally,” Kelly said. “If we’re working with rural hospitals, then it helps keep patients there, which helps those hospitals financially as well.”

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