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Technology gives doctors new ways to see patients

Technology gives doctors new ways to see patients

April 13th, 2012 by GRACIE BONDS STAPLES, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via The Associated Press in News

ATLANTA (AP) - Travis Proctor logged onto his computer, turned on his new webcam and clicked his mouse.

Within seconds, the 42-year-old father of three was face to face with Dr. Kelvin Burton, his primary care physician.

Just months ago, Proctor would have had to drive for nearly an hour round-trip from his home in Powder Springs to Burton's Douglasville family care practice just for a checkup.

Not anymore.

Now in what amounts to a 21st century house call, Burton and other doctors are seeing their patients via teleconferencing on personal computers, iPads and, if they have the app, iPhones. From the convenience of home, patients can receive care for minor illnesses or receive a diagnosis for something as complicated as a heart condition.

Paula Guy, CEO of the Georgia Partnership for Telehealth, believes telemedicine may represent the future in health care delivery.

"I think it's so important that we began taking care of patients beginning at home, and telemonitoring is going to be key to reforming health care," she said. "However, it will be up to each state's medical licensing board to determine whether it is appropriate or legal to provide consultations to patients in their homes via video without a history and physical."

Troy Heidesch, CEO of Smart House Calls based in Watkinsville, said that research shows that 85 percent of all Georgia patients age 18 to 85 have Internet access, and of those, 90 percent have web cameras or would be willing to buy one to see their doctor through telemedicine for minor problems.

And perhaps most telling, he said, is 42 percent say they would consider changing doctors to take advantage of the service.

Heidesch said the basic premise and the underlying mission of Smart House Calls is to improve patients' ability to connect with their physician without having to wait in a potentially infectious office setting. The company provides a secure HIPAA complaint portal on the Internet that allows doctors such as Burton and their established patients to see and hear each other online. Clinicians can also use it to securely send patient information to and from one another, including live ultrasounds, heart sounds, electro cardiograms and medical records.

In addition, Smart House Calls' portal is robust enough for large enterprises but inexpensive enough for the single physician practice: no downloads, no expensive hardware and easier to use than your cell phone.

"We're never going to replace you going to your doctor, Heidesch said. "But for minor problems such as a cold, sore throat, things you'd normally call the doctor for, Smart House Calls provides patients the easiest and most convenient way to see their doctors at a price that any family practice doctor can easily afford."

For some time now, Guy said the Peach State has been a leader in applying telemedicine.

GPT was awarded the Southeastern TeleHealth Resource Center grant and is one of 10 "resource centers" designated by the U. S. Health Resources Services Administration's Office for Advancement of TeleHealth to help promote the concept across the country. Since its inception in 2007, she said the nonprofit has grown from 40 locations to 267 participating clinics and sites and more than 175 specialists and health care providers.

Guy said that in the beginning the partnership was begging people to participate, and now people are coming to GPT "because they see the value and how incredibly efficient and cost-effective it is to provide care using technology."

Using high-definition cameras and Bluetooth stethoscopes, doctors are able to diagnose problems such as ear infections, throat problems and heart murmurs, Guy said.

Not only does telemedicine allow for more timely patient care and diagnosis, it reduces the need for unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

For example, Guy said that in 2010, 44 Berrien County schoolchildren showed up in the emergency room for asthma-related illnesses at a cost of about $2,500 per visit. In 2011, the year a telemedicine program was implemented in the South Georgia county, only one showed up.

"That's pretty incredible," Guy said.

Although there are some things such as touch that can't be done with telemedicine, Guy said the effort has a satisfaction rate of 95 percent from its patients and 91 percent from its physicians.

"It's not about the technology anymore, it's about applying it," Guy said. "In the next few years it will no longer be known as telehealth. It's just going to be the way we do health care."

When Proctor learned Burton was offering Smart House Calls, he signed up immediately.

Unlike most people who see their primary care physician once a year, Proctor said he has to come in once a month.

"It's great because it saves me time, and with gas prices so high, it's easier on the bottom line," Proctor said. "It kind of reverts back to the old house call, only it's online."

Burton said he saw Smart House Calls as a way to expand and enhance patient care in his practice. So far, about 20 of his patients have used the service in lieu of an office visit.

"Quite often I have patients come into the office who just need to ask questions," he said. "Having a face-to-face encounter is important, but if all you're doing is going over lab work, reviewing tests or making a referral to a specialist, this was the answer."

Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,