Dr. Dale Alverson
Dr, Dale Alverson is medical director for the UNM Health Sciences Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research.  He works with hospitals and clinics throughout the state on telehealth projects.
Credit: Paul Akmajian

Telemedicine in New Mexico is getting a $1.1 million boost, thanks to Gov. Susana Martinez and New Mexico state lawmakers.

Martinez this week signed into law a state budget that included about $600,000 for the Department of Health to expand telemedicine services in the state, and a $500,000 increase for Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), an internationally recognized telemedicine model developed at the University of New Mexico more than a decade ago.

The funding is good news for New Mexicans who live in rural, sparsely populated areas of the state where there is limited access to health care providers, especially the kind of specialists found at academic health centers like the UNM Health Sciences Center. For many New Mexicans, accessing that kind of health care has meant long hours of travel to Albuquerque. But telemedicine is becoming an increasingly viable, cost-effective alternative to traditional face-to-face examinations.

“Telehealth is coming of age," said Dr. Dale Alverson, medical director of the UNM Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine. "More and more it is moving toward being front and center as the standard of care in rural areas, rather than being an interesting program on the sidelines.” 

Telemedicine uses communications networks and information technologies like video conferencing to deliver healthcare at a distance. Increasingly, research is showing these systems can expand resources for local healthcare providers in cost effective ways and actually improve health outcomes, Alverson said.

Under Martinez’s proposal, funded by lawmakers during this year’s legislative session, organizations can apply for the new state funding by proposing unique and innovative plans to better connect physicians or other providers with patients in rural areas.

 “For many in our rural areas, particularly those suffering from chronic, complicated or rare illnesses, treatment can require long trips to urban centers to see specialists or other physicians,” Martinez said. “This often poses a tremendous financial burden on these patients, and can make it much more difficult for New Mexicans to get the treatment they need and deserve.”

 “I am thrilled that we will now be investing an additional $600,000 to ensure that more rural-area patients and providers are able to access trained specialists and physicians in other parts of the state. Building this sort of knowledge base is critical to helping New Mexicans get the health care they need, closer to home,” she said.

The state’s investment in telemedicine also includes an increase in funding for Project ECHO, which received nearly $2 million in this year’s budget. That’s a roughly $500,000 increase over last year’s appropriation.

UNM liver specialist Dr. Sanjeev Arora created Project ECHO in 2003. Under the program, medical specialists at the UNM Health Sciences Center use widely available video conferencing technology and case-based learning to help primary care clinicians all over the state manage chronic, complex conditions that they – as generalists – were not trained to manage in school. These conditions include Hepatitis C, HIV, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis and psychiatric disorders. 

“The faculty and staff at Project ECHO are extremely grateful for the support of the governor and the State Legislature,” said Project ECHO founder and director Arora. “This funding will allow us to provide better healthcare for underserved populations in rural New Mexico, and it will provide better healthcare access for those with complex diseases.” 

This year’s legislation builds on telemedicine-related measures enacted last year. That’s when lawmakers approved and the governor signed a law that allowed for telehealth billing, making New Mexico the 17th state to require private health insurance plans to provide coverage for telemedicine services to the same extent as an in-person visit.

Meanwhile, telehealth technology is diversifying and coming down in price, Alverson said.

“It used to be that people thought of telehealth as needing big studios and lots of expensive equipment,” he said. “Now, with smart phones, tablets and laptops, rural participants can edit and adjust sessions as needed.”

Alverson added that as the picture quality of telemedicine broadcasting sessions improves, physicians can make more accurate diagnoses from a distance.

 “There is more to an effective telehealth system than just creating a high speed Internet highway,” he said. The next step in expansion is a process of education as people learn what is available out there. We are providing software to our customers across the state so that they have to tools and resources to use telehealth effectively.”