Howard Yonas, MD
Howard Yonas, MD, is chair of the UNM Department of Neurosurgery.
Credit: John Arnold

The UNM Health Sciences Center has received a three-year, $15.1 million grant to test a telemedicine network that helps diagnose and treat stroke and brain injury patients.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services created the Health Care Innovations Awards in order to implement today’s “most compelling new ideas” for delivery of improved healthcare delivery for people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program.

Working with the Albuquerque-based technology firm Net Medical Xpress, UNM is installing a network of low cost, high-definition cameras and audiovisual conferencing equipment in emergency rooms throughout the state. The equipment will allow UNM neurosurgeons and neurologists to provide real-time, face-to-face consultations via the internet with doctors, patients and their families who live in areas that have traditionally lacked access to this type of specialized care.

“It is not just pictures going back and forth, it is knowledge that is needed so that everybody gets certain kind of comfort level with what treatment needs to be done,” said Dr. Howard Yonas, chair for the UNM School of Medicine Department of Neurosurgery and chief principal investigator for the grant.

The technology is simple and easy to access, allowing physicians the opportunity to help patients in ways that were unthinkable just five years ago, according to Yonas.

“This is critical for good stroke care," he said. "A provider needs to be able to see and speak with the patient. You need to know how they are reacting in a conversation, how they are using their hands and the way the pupils in their eyes are reacting. Along with their scans and lab tests, this type of clinical information is needed for a good diagnosis and outcome."

Not only does the network provide for real-time diagnosis, but it also gives the patient’s medical team more information about whether or not a patient can remain in his or her community for treatment rather than being airlifted to UNM Hospital in Albuquerque.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited reducing unnecessary medical transports of patients from rural areas to Albuquerque as one of the major goals of the grant.

Air medical transports can cost up to $30,000, yet a study with the U.S. Indian Health Service several years ago showed that about 40 percent of the stroke patients flown to UNM Hospitals could have been treated near their homes, saving costs to the medical system and easing the burden of care for patients and their families, Yonas said.

“With a telehealth conference, we can stabilize a patient at the local hospital and begin treating them there, even if they need to be flown into Albuquerque,” he said.

To date, some 30 hospitals statewide have signed on to work with UNM’s telemedicine network.