Technology Brings Doctors and Rural Patients Closer

By: Jason Aubry Email
By: Jason Aubry Email

Living in rural southern Colorado has its perks, but often access to quality healthcare is not one of them. However, that could be changing now, as Centura Health and United Healthcare launched their Connected Care program in several counties around the state.

Here's how it works. A patient in a rural community will call their specialist and set up an appointment. They will then go to their local participating health care facility where they will talk to their doctor in the privacy of their own room. Their doctor likewise will be available to answer any questions or examine their patient with a variety of high tech medical equipment.

Sounds like a normal doctor's visit, doesn't it? Well, here's the catch; the doctor and the patient won't be in the same room. In fact they won't even be in the same county! The entire appointment will be conducted via video conferencing.

Using hardware by Cisco, the medical suite includes everything a doctor would need to examine a patient. On the patients end, an assistant to the doctor will follow given instructions, take vitals, and act as a proxy to the doctor. The capabilities of the medical instruments are just as good, if not better than the same tools found in a normal doctors office.

With the ability to freeze the video images, doctors can show their patients what the problem is, instead of trying to explain it simply. They can also listen to a patients heart and lung activity using a special stethoscope that allows them to adjust volume.

But, while all of this sounds amazing, the system isn't immune to its share of problems. Internet connectivity is one such issue; during a nearly hour long demonstration connectivity dropped to a very low level, causing the video to distort and pixelate. However, the connection quickly resumed at its apparent normal rate shortly thereafter. The system also relies heavily on two humans completing a task that would normally be done by one.

Both relatively minor issues in the grand scheme of things, and both pale in comparison to the convenience and ease at which the patient can take care of routine doctors visits. Jessica Medina, an employee of High Plains Community Health Center in Lamar, may have been playing the role of patient during the demonstration, but she knows first hand what it's like to have to travel to see a doctor. "[It's] frustrating as a patient to spend five hours on the road for a five minute appointment they could do over the internet and via the technology that we have," says Medina.

Urban doctors, who will save a ton on travel time, agree and are enthusiastic about the new technology. "It allows us to serve our patients that we do rurally in a different way, and most of the time those patients are coming to us," says Dr. Stephen Brown, Chief Medical Officer for Centura Health.

Centura Health and United Healthcare have teamed up to make Connected Care a reality. Currently four outlying, rural health facilities are connecting to three urban hospitals. They are High Plains Community Health Center in Lamar, Rio Grande Hospital Clinic in Del Norte, Buena Vista Family Practice in Buena Vista, and St. Vincent General Hospital in Leadville. The participating urban hospitals are St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo, St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver, and Littleton Adventist Hospital in Littleton.

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