A federal grant will help Saint Francis Medical Center reach more patients through a new regional telemedicine program.
"The smaller, rural hospitals may have a great clinical staff but may not always have access to many specialists. This allows our specialists to consult, and even diagnose, in real time with their doctors," said Debby Sprandel, neuroscience service line director at Saint Francis Medical Center.
The $262,068 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will provide equipment needed for telemedicine consultations to patients at three rural Southeast Missouri hospitals: Missouri Southern Healthcare in Dexter, the Pemiscot County Memorial Hospital in Hayti and the Perry County Memorial Hospital in Perryville. The program will benefit patients from Bollinger, Butler, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Perry, Scott, Stoddard and Wayne counties who arrive in emergency rooms with symptoms of an acute stroke or trauma.
Two Missouri hospitals received grants for this program -- Saint Francis and Scotland County Memorial Hospital in northeast Missouri. Sprandel said some hospitals in St. Louis already have the technology, but she's excited that Southeast Missouri will now have access to it.
"It's a bit more complicated than a video camera but similar," Sprandel said.
She said other diagnostic equipment such as stethoscopes and ultrasound hooked to the telemedical system could allow Saint Francis doctors to view diagnostic information.
Sprandel said Saint Francis will contribute to the purchase of the equipment but that the majority comes from the grant. Sprandel did not specify Saint Francis' contribution.
Thomas McAuliffe, director of communication at the Missouri Foundation for Health, said telemedicine is the beginning of medicine's digital age.
"In some rural areas where people must drive 200 miles to see a specialist, telemedicine is going to allow more people to be seen more quickly by the right doctor for their need," McAuliffe said.
"Especially with Missouri's restrictive laws governing nurse practitioners, the program will allow for both greater convenience and better care," McAuliffe said, referring to a state law that limits physicians to collaborating with a maximum of three advanced-practice nurses at once, all within 50 miles of the physician.
"It won't be cheap, but it will be worth it, especially for rural hospitals who are trying to compete with much larger hospitals," McAuliffe explained.
The funding Saint Francis will receive is part of a $14 million nationwide USDA project to bring teletrauma and telestroke programs to rural communities.
"It is unfortunate that most rural community hospitals do not have basic patient-assessment capability in place on an around-the-clock basis," said Steven C. Bjelich, Saint Francis president and CEO, in a news release. "This results in the patient either not receiving the best available treatment or being transferred to Saint Francis, losing valuable time between original presentation in the emergency room, and treatment. This program will allow patients to receive lifesaving treatment in a timely manner, thus improving clinical outcomes."
The program was announced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In the news release, Vilsack said the program will allow rural hospitals to compete in the 21st century and allow rural citizens access to the same quality medical care that urban citizens enjoy.
"This allows the hospital to start treatment nearly immediately," Sprandel said, referring to a hospital Saint Francis would be able to teleconference with. "It's all about saving time and getting treatment as soon as possible."
SoutheastHEALTH has plans for a new telemedicine system with the installation of a video phone system in the next two years.
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