The links will allow staffers to take training, get updates on emergencies or coordinate the response to epidemics without having to travel.
And a few locations are set up so physicians can examine patients remotely as well.
“One of the really interesting projects is where a site is using it for nutrition education,” said Suleima Salgado, the department’s program manager. “…Instead of the nutritionist traveling from county health department to county, this location has one nutritionist full time on the virtual system giving nutrition-education classes via streaming to people in a conference room in each county.”
Many health districts and local health departments have used the technology for years, but others are still getting connected. Right now, the technology is functioning in 75-80 percent of the state, she said.
The department plans to deploy 14 telemedicine carts which will allow physicians to examine patients remotely. Specially trained nurses will use equipment on the carts to allow doctors to hear heartbeats, look in ears and throats and even read CAT-scan images.
“Given the range of specialists that we have in our network, virtually any service is available to a patient other than touching the patient,” said Jeffrey Kesler, chief operating officer of the Georgia Telehealth Partnership, a non-profit network of 200 doctors who see patients electronically.
The department is plugging into the partnership’s established network and will take advantage of training it offers on how to use the carts.
Last year, the partnership’s physicians handled 70,000 patient encounters across Georgia in schools, nursing homes, jails and private offices, by far the most of any state in the country, according to Kesler. That experience will help the department get the most from its network.
A big advantage is connecting specialists who tend to live in big cities with patients in rural parts of the state. For instance, countless lives have been saved by rural emergency rooms connecting stroke patients with neurologists who can order drugs in time for them to be effective long before a trip is possible to a bigger hospital.
While health departments don’t typically deal with strokes, their patients will have access to more specialists through the network.
The Department of Public Health recognizes the value to rural counties to make more telemedicine sites available. It also helps stretch limited manpower in serving patients with ongoing illnesses like diabetes where frequent contact is needed to keep them on their treatment plans.