Telemedicine Teleports Rural Residents to National Forefront

August 11th, 2006 by Leave a Comment

By Benita M. Dodd

Remember when people moved to the countryside for health reasons? Choosing to live in small-town Georgia has its health advantages, but health care hasn’t been one of them.

Ask any victim of a traffic wreck on a rural Georgia road, where fatalities are twice as high as in urban areas, in spite of lower populations. Ask the parent of a chronic asthmatic child: The number of pediatricians per 100,000 residents is nearly five times higher in Georgia metropolitan areas than in non-metropolitan areas, according to the Georgia Board for Physician Workforce, a legislative advisory board. Ask the diabetic farmer who needs a consultation on possible cataract surgery: It’s no emergency, but he has trouble driving the distance to the nearest ophthalmologist.

Unfortunately, physical access to a medical facility for every Georgian is possible, but highly unlikely, given the enormous associated cost and the risk of closure at rural hospitals. Redistributing doctors is impractical – and Georgia already ranks in the bottom third among states in the number of physicians per capita, the 2006 report of theGeorgia Board for Physician Workforce found. At 202 practicing physicians per 100,000 residents, the state remains far below the national average of 270 physicians per 100,000.

Fortunately, technology is changing the landscape for the nearly 2 million Georgians who live and work outside the metropolitan areas, where specialists and medical facilities congregate. Today, rural Georgia is at the cutting edge of medical innovation, thanks to an initiative that brings the problem to health care experts while keeping the patient close to home: telemedicine.

Part of the Rural Health Care Initiative, the state’s telemedicine network integrates high-speed phone lines, computers and diagnostic medical equipment including sophisticated cameras to enable physicians and specialists to consult with patients from a distance. The consultation can be real-time, with live cameras and video feed, or forwarded to the physician for review at his leisure.

In an era of changing dynamics, with rising costs and a new focus on preventive health care, this new twist on the doctor-patient relationship motivates patients to better care by facilitating their health care. Instead of traveling to an electrocardiologist in Atlanta, for example, the patient in Cordele can drive the short distance to Crisp RegionalHospital – one of more than 40 telemedicine network facilities statewide – for an electronic consultation with a specialist from one of Georgia’s teaching hospitals.

The result is the largest privately funded telemedicine network in the Union, according to Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine: a program that brings everyGeorgia citizen within 25 miles of a major hospital or a telemedicine facility.

The Insurance Commissioner established the Georgia Telemedicine Network in the Rural Health Initiative, created with $126.5 million committed over 20 years during renegotiations of a merger of Anthem Inc. and WellPoint Health Networks, which owns BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia. He also got a guarantee that policyholders would not be subject to a premium increase because of the merger or commitment to the Initiative.

Georgia faces numerous critical challenges in health care, many of which involve greater initiative on the part of patients. From Medicaid to private insurance, the responsibility for prudence in health care costs and decisions will rest increasingly in consumer-driven options. At a Sept. 7-8 conference of the Georgia Free Clinic Network, co-sponsored by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Morehouse College, where policy leaders, medical experts and business leaders will focus on how to ensure all Georgians have access to quality health care, consumer-driven options and technological innovation will be front and center.  And rural Georgia, usually seen as left behind, will be way ahead.

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Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 11, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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