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Internet Connections Bolster Rural Health Care in Wyoming


June 14, 2011 — Opportunities for Wyoming rural residents to receive additional health services will be bolstered with the addition of high-speed Internet connections in 37 Wyoming hospitals and mental health clinics.

The University of Wyoming's Center for Rural Health Research and Education (CRHRE) sponsors the connections with a grant from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and using Qwest as a vendor. The connection is a joint project with the Wyoming Telehealth Consortium in an effort to bring health care to rural Wyoming residents. The system already has been used for several medical consultations.

"This (telehealth) opens up an opportunity for Wyomingites in rural areas to receive specialty medical care or mental health care without having to travel great distances and incur lost wages through having to take time away from work," says Rex Gantenbein, CRHRE director in the UW College of Health Sciences. "It also allows smaller Critical Access Hospitals the means to provide specialty care and keep patients in their home towns."

Telehealth is the use of telecommunication and computing technology to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. The services can range from direct clinical services such as mental health counseling to consultations between local practitioners and specialists at larger facilities located in or out of state.

"Using telehealth for such services can reduce the costs of health care and provide better care in communities where specialized care is not available," Gantenbein says."It also can provide targeted training and educational services to local practitioners, who would otherwise have to travel, as well as access to medical information and resources not available in a small facility or practice."

In rural areas, a primary care provider will determine what kind of specialty treatment, or if treatment that isn't available locally, is needed. Then, based on pre-arranged referral patterns, the patient's primary care provider will make an appointment with the specialty physician, says Bob Wolverton, CRHRE instructional specialist.

"Local providers or members of their staffs present the patient to the specialist via the telehealth connection in the case of a face-to-face encounter, or make an image that can be sent to the specialist for review and response that is not in 'real-time'," he says. "In reality almost any medical specialty can be provided across a telemedicine connection. This is why we are so excited about the network -- we can bring medical care to Wyoming residents without requiring them to travel to providers' locations, thereby saving time and money and keeping the patients close to home, which research has shown is key to quicker recovery."

Critical Access Hospitals are designated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Requirements include that the hospital be designated rural -- more than 35 miles from any other hospital and have less than 25 beds.

"That is a large portion of hospitals in Wyoming, to be sure. The small size of the hospitals and large distances between the Critical Access Hospitals and larger facilities that can support specialty care is what makes telehealth so important to Wyoming," Wolverton says. "The state Medicaid office strongly supports providing distance care because it brings treatment to patients sooner and it saves the cost of travel reimbursement, thereby reducing the cost to taxpayers."

All facilities connected in the project are in Wyoming and any health or mental care provider in the state can join, Gantenbein says. The grant covered installation of equipment, with the FCC providing 85 percent of the funds and the Wyoming Department of Health also sponsored a significant portion.

"Individual clinics and organizations of providers pledged a share as well," Gantenbein says.

For more information, contact Gantenbein at (307) 766-6544 or rex@uwyo.edu.

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