KU Medical Center experts to expand technology training for reaching rural patients

Already pioneers in the field of telemedicine, experts at the KU Medical Center now will teach more doctors, nurses and other health professionals how to use remote technology to care for rural patients.

With $980,000 in federal funding recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Medical Center will work with the University of Missouri and the University of Oklahoma to create the Heartland Telehealth Resource Center. The new center will help health providers throughout the region better understand what KU Medical Center has been demonstrating for nearly 20 years: Patients in hard-to-reach, rural areas receive high-quality care using videoconference technologies to “visit” faraway doctors.

“Almost any tool a health professional would normally use can be used through telemedicine,” said Ryan Spaulding, director of the Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth at KU Medical Center and the principal investigator for the grant. “Doctors are able to listen to patients’ hearts with stethoscopes, look in their ears with otoscopes, and check their skin with dermascopes.”

KU Medical Center started its telehealth programs in 1991 and has since held consultations with tens of thousands of patients. It is one of the first such programs in the country and includes the first known school-based telemedicine program for children. The grant to create a Heartland Telehealth Resource Center, Spaulding said, is a result of KU Medical Center’s success in creating telehealth programs. “We have been a leader in this area of health care, and HHS believes in our ability to show others how it works.”

The Heartland Telehealth Resource Center will combine expertise from KU Medical Center’s Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth, the Missouri Telehealth Network at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the Oklahoma Center for Telemedicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Each of the three institutions has unique strengths in telemedicine. In addition to being one of the nation’s earliest programs, the KU Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth has particular expertise in telehealth research, especially cost-benefit analysis. The Missouri program has a strong track record in adult clinical care, distance education and telehealth policy involvement. The Oklahoma Center for Telemedicine has an extensive background with store-and-forward telemedicine and interactive consultation, particularly for Native American and pediatric populations. Overall, these institutions offer telehealth expertise that few regions can match.

Together, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma are on an urgent mission to provide greater telehealth resources for one simple reason: nearly 90 percent of all counties in the three states are rural. As a result, consumers have limited access to services, there’s a shortage of physicians, health care organizations face financial constraints and, because of limited health education, poor lifestyle choices create greater health-care needs. Telehealth can help solve these problems.

“While the Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma telemedicine programs are all robust and active, there are still significant gaps in coverage in each state that the HTRC will target and address,” Spaulding said.

Among other things, the center will provide technical assistance and resources to new telehealth programs, use new social media tools such as Facebook to provide resources to patients and professionals and test other marketing strategies to drive consumer demand for telehealth services.

“Patients were early adopters – they know that a telehealth visit is much easier than driving several hours to get care,” Spaulding said. “Doctors have been slower to take advantage of the technology. We want to test whether increasing patient demand will increase doctors’ willingness to embrace this method of providing care.”

For more information, see kumc.edu/telemedicine/.

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