More of rural Maine getting health care electronically

Posted July 22, 2010, at 11:31 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Especially for residents of Maine’s more rural areas, telemedicine is shaping up to become a significant component of health care services.

The technology employs computerized audio and video equipment to allow patients to be seen by doctors, both primary care providers and medical specialists, who may be many miles away.

Telemedicine has been in use in Maine for a decade or more and is currently found in a variety of clinical settings. Its presence here is likely to expand, fueled by emerging state and federal policies, improving technology, and the worsening of the national shortage of physicians.

At an upcoming conference in Orono, patients, insurers, educators, employers, health care providers and others will have a chance to learn more about telemedicine and the opportunities it presents. The daylong Maine Telemedicine Summit, hosted by the Maine Telehealth Collaborative, will take place Aug. 17 at the University of Maine.

Mainers may be skeptical of replacing face-to-face visits with computer consultations, acknowledges Dr. David McDermott, president of the Maine Medical Association and director of emergency services at Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft. But given Maine’s sparsely settled demographics and the chronic shortage of physicians here, residents will want to keep an open mind, he said.

“There is growing recognition that not every hospital in the state is able to offer every service,” McDermott said Thursday. Expanding access to telemedicine technology is key to connecting patients in rural areas with specialty care such as dermatology, neurology and mental health counseling, he said. Telemedicine may prove especially beneficial for initial consultations to determine whether further specialty care is needed, McDermott said.

“If you need a procedure done, you’ll still go to Bangor or Boston,” he said. But for patients who need an initial examination or to talk with a physician about their clinical options, telemedicine can save both time and money.

Home care agencies in Maine have been using in-home cameras and computer monitors for years in some regions to allow nurses, mental health counselors and other professionals to “visit” their patients from a central location. Telemedicine technology connects doctors in some small rural emergency departments to their coun-terparts at larger trauma centers, allowing seriously ill or injured patients to be examined, stabilized and treated prior to being transported to a larger facility.

“Virtual” intensive care units also are proliferating in Maine, with doctors and nurses in central locations providing a second set of eyes and ears to smaller hospitals’ most critically ill patients.

Thanks to state and federal policy changes that support the spread of telemedicine, Mainers can expect to see more of this technology in the near future.

Public and private grant funding is available to help hospitals and clinics purchase the needed equipment as well as to develop the bandwidth needed to provide speedy connections and to share live, high-definition images over the Internet.

National health care reform prioritizes the development of telemedicine as part of the solution to the country’s worsening physician shortage. The federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed policy changes that lighten the regulatory load on hospitals that use telemedicine, and state insurance regulations were amended in 2009 to require insurance companies to pay for physician services delivered via telemedicine technology.

These incentives will be explored and explained at the upcoming Maine Telemedicine Summit. The event is being organized by the Maine Office of Rural Health and Primary Care and the Maine Telehealth Collaborative, an organization made up of public officials, medical providers, insurance providers and other groups with a stake in the development of telemedicine.

The event is open to the public and will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 17, at the Wells Conference Center at the University of Maine in Orono.

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