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And the winner is…

September 1, 1998
by Angela Erwin
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Telemedicine builds bridges. It allows general practitioners and specialists separated by hundreds of miles to consult on patients as if they were in the same room. It allows rural residents equal access to the expert care often found only in urban areas. It saves the healthcare industry millions each year by reducing patient transfers, and eliminates the need to transport prisoners for routine medical visits. This article profiles two award-winning examples of how telemedicine can be used to improve patient care and reduce costs: The St. Mark’s Hospital/VitalCom partnership in Utah and the NEC America/Texas Tech University partnership in western Texas.

The Healthcare Innovations in Technology Systems (HITS) Partnership in Technology Award, created by the Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, commended innovative partnerships in home healthcare, clinical information systems and telemedicine in 1997. The Henry Ford Health System, the National Managed Health Care Congress (NMHCC) and Healthcare Informaticssponsor the annual competition.

HITS winner
Two hundred miles of rugged land separate St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, Utah, but medical professionals at each facility work as if they’re side by side.

Officials at St. Mark’s, a 306-bed tertiary facility, called on VitalCom, Inc., a wireless networked monitoring systems manufacturer in Tustin, Calif., to install a central monitoring system for 40 of their patient beds. A 24-hour dedicated monitoring staff at the hospital could then route vital sign data wherever they were needed in the hospital and page medical personnel in an emergency.

Once the system was in place, hospital officials recognized a potential for this same dedicated staff to monitor patients at its rural affiliate hospitals throughout the state, reducing costs for the affiliates. St. Mark’s again called on VitalCom personnel, this time asking them to connect St. Mark’s with Allen Memorial. The collaboration, with help from the University of Utah’s Telemedicine Outreach department and US West, yielded SiteLink, a wide area network routed through a fractional T-1 circuit connecting the two facilities. Unused bandwidth on the T-1 line was allocated for a local phone connection between sites to avoid toll charges and ensure constant availability of a phone line. VitalCom staff met early in the planning stages with nurses and physicians from St. Mark’s and Allen Memorial to devise monitoring procedures that would guarantee patient safety and efficient communication between sites. For their insight and innovation, VitalCom and St. Mark’s Hospital won the 1997 HITS award for telemedicine.

Now the monitoring staff at St. Mark’s view real-time images of physiologic waveforms and vital sign data for Allen Memorial patients and can send emergency pages to local staff in less than 10 seconds if necessary. This technology vastly reduces the need for costly patient transfers to tertiary facilities.

According to St. Mark’s Administrative Director for Business Development Mark Meadows, SiteLink guarantees better healthcare. "This [system] allows patients access to higher technology and a higher quality of care without a high cost. It has proven that there are things that can be done to fit the ’cost, quality, access’ model of healthcare."

The partnership effectively saved Allen Memorial. Although SiteLink only monitors two Allen Memorial patients at once, 67 were monitored in the first five months of operation: March to June 1997. Seventeen of those patients would have required transferring to another facility before, but because of SiteLink, only three were transferred. The 14 patients saved from transfer generated $79,820 in revenues for the hospital and saved $84,000 in transport costs.

This telemedicine system allows St. Mark’s to capitalize on its existing investment in a dedicated monitoring staff and extend it’s reach to smaller affiliates. "It gives us the ability to work outside the walls of our hospital and give something back to the rural facilities who often struggle with costs," Meadows says.

HITS runner up
In 1993, officials from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) teamed up with NEC America to solve the problem of reaching medically-underserved areas in western Texas. Their collaboration produced TeleDoc 5000, a self-contained, fully-integrated videoconferencing system for medical consultation, examination and education. This effort won NEC America and TTUHSC the 1997 runner up HITS award in telemedicine.

Built around NEC’s TC5000EX7 video codec (coder/decoder), the unit includes a single-chip camera, xenon light source, digital examination camera with endoscopic adapter, X-ray light box, storage, VCR, dual monitors, pull-out writing table and audio and video controls. Because the video codec is capable of boosting an existing signal by 6,000 feet, no modifications to facilities are generally necessary. The unit is fully mobile for transportation to various sites, and is virtually "plug-and-play" once the proper phone lines are installed. Philip Carter, product marketing manager at NEC America, Inc., says there are between 150 and 200 TeleDocs installed in rural hospitals and clinics across the country.