Health practitioners look to smartphones and Web tools to connect with patients

Posted Aug. 14, 2012, at 6:35 p.m.

WATERVILLE, Maine — Most of the time when patients visit a doctor’s office for an appointment, they don’t need a hands-on examination, according to Dr. Rafael Grossmann, a surgeon at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

With modern electronic communication, there’s no need for patients to waste hours traveling to see their physician just for a conversation, Grossmann told a small crowd gathered at Colby College on Tuesday for a conference on telehealth.

“Eighty percent of visits can be done without touching the patient, just sitting down and talking and connecting with them without physical touch,” he said.

Grossmann, a general and trauma surgeon, said some of his patients have driven four hours from northern Maine to visit him.

“They sit down and you go in there and you have 15 other patients and you don’t think about how they have traveled all this time, it might be the middle of winter … Then five or 10 minutes later, I have nothing else to tell them,” he said.

But telehealth — the use of electronic communication to connect patients and health practitioners over long distances — is changing that dynamic, Grossmann said.

Telehealth encompasses an array of communications, from doctor-patient video chats on services such as Skype to home health nurses remotely monitoring vital signs of elderly patients.

In a rural state such as Maine, where health services and medical specialists can be difficult to come by outside more urban areas, telehealth can make the difference in accessing care, said Edwina Ducker, convener of the telehealth conference, now in its third year.

“We really need to have this technology to get health care out to the underserved,” she said.

Earlier this month, news of a plan to close the emergency department at St. Andrews Hospital and Healthcare Center in Boothbay highlighted the pressures facing rural medicine in Maine.

A growing number of clinicians and health care administrators in the state are using telehealth, according to Barbara Shaw, a health policy analyst at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. Mental health practitioners connect virtually with patients for consults, and a trauma surgeon in Bangor can link up with a doctor in Greenville to view a patient’s burns or injuries by video and decide whether to airlift the patient to a trauma center for treatment, she said.

“It’s leveraging where we have the specialists and getting them virtually to places that don’t have resources on staff,” she said.

Telehealth isn’t without its challenges. While technology costs are coming down, many health providers worry about patient privacy and the security of sensitive health information being transmitted electronically. Clinicians may be unfamiliar with new technology or resistant to adopting it. High-speed broadband access, key to making health information easy to view and use, is improving in Maine but remains unavailable in many rural areas.

The conference, which drew about 150 attendees, covered topics ranging from mobile communications that improve treatment of wounded soldiers to putting state-issued laptops to use bettering the health of Maine middle school students.

Grossmann said he’s excited about the potential of health applications for smartphones, iPads and other mobile devices, known collectively as “m-health.” He highlighted a number of high-tech products emerging from the $1.3 billion mobile health app market.

A portable sleep device analyzes patients’ brain waves as they lie in bed, while another gadget that plugs into a smartphone can scan a patient’s eyes and send the results to an optometrist, he said. Smartphone users worried about a strange mole or skin lesion can snap a high-definition photo of it and send the image over the Internet for diagnosis.

“M-health is not a replacement; it’s just a supplement to what we already have,” Grossmann said. “That’s why providers shouldn’t be scared of the m-health wave that’s coming, that’s already here.”

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