OLIVIA - The skeletons of “telemedicine ventures past” are buried in the storage rooms of hospitals across rural Minnesota.
RC Hospital and Clinics CEO Nathan Blad stumbled on one in the storage room of the hospital in Olivia shortly after he started working there over eight years ago. The “obnoxious large microphone, humongous camera and this huge, boxy monitor’’ were what remained of an early 1990s venture there.
It is the dawn of a new era in what is now termed telehealth, and the RC Hospital and Clinics aims to be in the forefront, Blad told an audience Monday in Olivia.
They joined to see how the Renville County-owned hospital is working in partnership with Abbott Northwestern Hospital, part of Allina Health in Minneapolis, to introduce a new generation of telehealth technology. It promises to improve rural health care by increasing patient access to specialty care, and open new opportunities for disease prevention and management of chronic disease, all while reducing costs.
A $40,000 contribution by AgStar Financial Services, AgriBank, CoBank and United Farm Credit Services to Abbott Northwestern is helping make possible this telehealth initiative in western Minnesota.
The new technology will greatly reduce the patient lament “do I really need to go someplace else’’ by making available more types of specialized care right at home, according to Dr. J. Rob Kemp, M.D., chief of medical staff for the RC Hospital and Clinics.
Starting August 17, the RC Hospital will offer a cardiac telehealth system with a portable ultrasound unit. The “game changing” technology will allow specialists at Abbott Northwestern to view a patient’s heart and perform the kind of examination that previously could only be accomplished face-to-face, according to Dr. Robert Hauser, M.D., cardiologist with the Minneapolis Health Institute.
And soon to follow, the RC Hospital and Clinics will be adding similar technology that will allow neurologists to perform examinations for possible stroke victims.
Both systems were demonstrated to the audience on Monday, and looked nothing like the machine Blad found in the hospital basement.
Major improvements in digital technology, the conversion to electronic patient records, and high-speed Internet service have greatly improved what can be done today with telehealth, according to Hauser.
There are other forces driving the adoption of telehealth technology as well. Patients are much more accepting of remote access; many younger, digital natives expect it. Economic pressures and the reality that there are only so many specialists all favor the adoption of the technology as well, Hauser said.
He expects telehealth technology to greatly reduce inter-hospital transfers, since more care can be provided at a patient’s home hospital. Economic data show that Americans now spend more money accompanying families to physician visits than they spend on nursing homes in a year, according to Hauser.
Blad emphasized that specialty care providers, such as cardiologists like Dr. Hauser, will continue to serve RC Hospital and Clinics as before, with no reduction in the number of scheduled visits. The difference will be the improved access to sub-specialty care - such as for stroke neurologists - and the consultation that will be available via technology around the clock.
RC Hospital and Clinic’s willingness to be a leader in taking up the new technology makes this an exciting time, according to the hospital’s chief of medical staff.
“Telehealth is really the cutting edge of medicine,’’ said Dr. Kemp.
Dr. Hauser said he believes that 50 percent of all patient encounters will occur via telehealth by 2025.