Lone Star doctors beam medical care via video

Lone Star doctors beam medical care via video

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

A Texas university is using telemedicine to provide medical care to prison inmates without putting physicians at risk and to care for children with special needs.

Several years ago the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston was charged with providing managed care to Texas' prison population. Not only was it expensive to send physicians to prisons, it was dangerous, said Leon Whitley, supervisor for video operations at the Medical Branch.

'You ran the risk of physicians getting caught in a prison lockdown,' he said. 'We figured there's got to be a better way.'

The branch adapted almost everything a physician can do into its two-way videoconferencing system. 'Our philosophy is that anything that can be poked or prodded by your physician, we can send that information across our network,' Whitley said.

Using peripherals from JedMed Instrument Co. of St. Louis, Whitley and his staff can send information from an otoscope'the lighted device doctors use to examine ears'across the video network. Digital stethoscopes can send heart and chest sounds over the network.

The medical staff uses several videoconferencing systems from Compression Labs Inc., which was recently bought by V-Tel Corp. of Austin, Texas. The staff also uses six Cruiser 384 desktop videoconferencing systems from VCON Ltd. of Herzliya, Israel. The systems run over T1 lines with Integrated Services Digital Network switches from Madge Networks of Eatontown, N.J.

Whitley attributes part of the program's success to working very closely with the physicians. 'We ask them, 'How do you practice medicine?' Then we adapt what they do to the telemedicine equipment, not the other way around,' Whitley said.

'When vendors come to us with the latest and greatest, we give the equipment to our physicians to try out. Then we ask them, 'Does this work for you or is it a piece of worthless junk?' ' he said.

House calls

The videoconferencing has let the branch's medical workers extend their outreach to special needs children as far away as Texarkana, 330 miles from Galveston.

Dr. Sally Robinson, a branch pediatrician, uses a Concorde videoconferencing system from PictureTel Corp. of Andover, Mass., to check on children at several Medicaid-funded satellite clinics. Most of Robinson's videoconferencing patients are children with a combination of congenital or acquired physical or mental handicaps.

Children and their families like the videoconferencing system, Robinson said. 'Kids like it because they talk to the television and it talks back to them,' Robinson said. Families are pleased because they save travel time, she said.

The branch's program comprises specialists in 36 medical areas, from allergies to infectious diseases. Robinson said one of her biggest challenges has been convincing physicians and speech and physical therapists that they can treat patients without touching them.

'I think this is the way that medicine will be partly practiced in the future. It's been very helpful in teaching physicians, and it's a wonderful way to help care for children in rural communities,' she said.

Next, branch officials plan to expand the telemedicine program into geriatrics by installing videoconferencing systems in nursing homes in west Texas.

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