A new cutting-edge telemedicine program at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center is offering much needed neurological and neurosurgical specialists to rural and small hospitals across New Mexico.
UNM Hospitals, with the help of Albuquerque-based technology firm Net Medical Xpress, recently installed a network of high-definition cameras and audiovisual conferencing equipment that allows specialists at UNM Hospital to interact directly with patients and their providers at 13 hospitals across New Mexico. That number is expected to nearly double, as equipment is installed in more hospitals. Neurosurgeons and neurologists at UNM are now able to provide real-time, face-to-face consultations over the internet with doctors, patients and their families who live in communities that have traditionally lacked access to this type of specialized care.
"For stroke care, you really have to see the patient," explained Howard Yonas, MD, a stroke specialist and the chair of the UNM Department of Neurosurgery, one of the only neurosurgery facilities in the state. "You have to look at the patients' pupils and watch their movement, alongside viewing the MRI or CT scan images."
About five years ago, the UNM departments of neurosurgery and neurology began using telemedicine technology that allowed remote hospitals to send high resolution MRI and CT scans to UNM through a secure imaging capture system. Thanks to advances in audio-visual technology, the program has now evolved to allow UNM specialists to consult with other doctors and their patients in real-time, through secure, remote-control cameras that have been installed in emergency rooms across the state.
In addition to providing immediate specialist care to patients, the system also prevents unnecessary and expensive medical transports to Albuquerque. Given the lack of specialists in rural hospitals and potential severity of brain injuries, many patients were being transported by helicopter or plane to UNM Hospital to receive treatment from a specialist. While these transports are sometimes crucial, UNM found that almost 40% of these patients were not in need of emergency treatment and could have stayed at their local hospital, eliminating the extreme inconvenience and stress of the transport, not to mention the cost. A helicopter transport from a rural hospital to UNM can run upwards of $30,000.
"And what we're trying to do is to be able to reduce the costs of these transports and be able to provide immediacy to that patient – healthcare coverage by a specialist who has treated thousands of patients and knows exactly what to look for," said Net Medical President and CEO Dick Govatski.
"We can prevent some of these unnecessary transports," Yonas said. "And if the patient really has an emergency, then we can expedite things and get them here quicker. We can even start their care at the other hospital before they travel. So better information leads to better decision-making, better triage."
This telemedicine program is part of a broader push at the UNM Health Sciences Center to improve brain and behavioral health in New Mexico, an initiative made possible by the UNM Brain and Behavior Health Institute (BBHI). This newly formed center is dedicated to research and training to advance clinical care and treatment options for neurological and mental health issues. Researchers and clinicians from many UNM Health Sciences Center departments are working together to improve care for patients with various diseases and conditions, including stroke, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, addiction, Alzheimer's and neurodevelopmental disorders.
"In a large, primarily rural state like New Mexico, delivering specialized health care to all communities is a challenge," according to Bill Shuttleworth, PhD, a faculty member in the UNM Department of Neurosciences who is leading the effort to establish the new center. "The BBHI is bringing together regional hospitals, local small businesses, medical specialists and researchers from UNM to engage our community partners throughout the state and create solutions for improving healthcare access statewide."