Connecting UNM doctors to rural NM
Nurse practitioner Jay Fluhman of Union County General Hospital in Clayton, New Mexico, tests a telemedicine system with a UNM doctor.

Pediatric emergency doctors at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center will be treating sick children across the state, thanks to a new program that allows them to consult with patients via video conferencing technology.

The telemedicine initiative is a component of "Child Ready," a program supported by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) that aims to address gaps in pediatric emergency care across New Mexico, especially in rural parts of the state.

As part of the program, 20 UNM emergency doctors are getting credential approval to collaborate with providers in New Mexico's rural hospitals, according to Dr. Robert Sapien, chief of UNM’s Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine.

“It’s about the patient having good and equal care at the site,” said Sapien, who is leading the program in partnership with UNM's Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research.

Ailing children are already getting treatment via video at two hospitals – UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho and Clayton's Union County General Hospital. And over the next few months, video healthcare will expand to hospitals in Zuni, Truth or Consequences, Artesia and other New Mexico communities.

The New Mexico Department of Health is funding video equipment, which is provided to hospitals at no cost.

“We can focus on the child and from here remotely drive the camera,” explained Sapien.

Sick children - with some exceptions - get treated in their communities and avoid the high cost of transporting their loved ones to the UNM hospital, he added.

The face-to-face video communication also helps a UNM doctor build trust with the family of a sick child and ease concerns. Communication "is a huge part," Sapien said.

In addition to doctors, patients have access to other UNM medical experts - UNM nurses specializing in pediatric emergency medicine can also participate in video consultations. “We can provide that kind of expertise on multiple levels which is different than a lot of places.”

Providers at rural hospitals also benefit by building a long-term relationship with UNM doctors. As the program reaches other rural hospitals, Sapien envisions a virtual pediatric emergency network that is accessible to all of New Mexico's children. “It’s a specialized population with specialized problems and an opportunity to give (children) specialized care.”

“I want (rural hospitals) to feel connected so that they are not out there alone,” said Sapien. "I hope it's a stress relief."