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Connecting Doctors with Patients in Rural Towns

Telemedicine: Connecting Doctors with Patients in Rural Towns

Story courtesy of the Wyoming Office of Rural Health

       Dale Newland is one of 596 residents in the Farson-Eden, Wyoming area. The rural town is approximately 20 square miles. To get advanced medical care or emergency treatment, townspeople have always had to drive hours to reach a full-service hospital. The community only has one chiropractor, Dr. Kal Sellers, and part-time medical doctor, Gentian Scheer to help provide most of the medical care. But that changed in 2013, after Dale suffered serious burns while trying to fix a water heater at his home. “I went to shut it off and lit a BBQ lighter and before I knew it my right hand, fingers, arm and palm got burned.”  At Farson’s own small Eden Valley Telehealth Services Clinic, Dale received expert treatment under the guidance of a burn specialist in Salt Lake City, who examined Dale via video camera.

       How telemedicine came to Farson, is a story of grassroots community support sparked by the dedicated efforts of one special advocate: Mary Anne Mines. “In Farson, I’m a volunteer EMT, but I also have a background in business and computers, and I kept thinking about ways technology could improve our access to medical services,” she explains. “I knew we had to make this solution affordable, which meant we’d need help from people and organizations who recognized the challenges of rural health care.”

       And so Mary Anne sought out and partnered with Kathy Tacke, co-director of United Way of Southwest Wyoming, and the pair talked about the unique health care challenge of people in rural towns. The conversation turned to telemedicine and the collaboration between University of Wyoming’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Wyoming Health Information Organization (WyHIO) began. Mary Anne soon recruited longtime resident of the Valley, and EMT, Shirley DeLambert. They spent hours working behind the scenes brainstorming ideas to use telemedicine in Farson. All of their energy paid off. The United Way provided funding, and the University donated a computer and digital equipment to Eden Valley Telehealth Services Clinic.  But the help didn't stop there. Cheyenne Regional Medical Center stepped in, offering to help get Farson “online” and connected with other hospitals’ telehealth programs. One such hospital was the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City, Utah--the facility that remotely treated Farson’s first telemedicine patient: Dale Newland. 

       Dale suffered serious burns that afternoon while working on his water heater, but decided not to drive several hours for hospital treatment. Instead, he tried to care for the burns himself at home.  The next day, the pain had worsened alarmingly, and he showed up at Clinic for advice. To his surprise, within 30 minutes, he was chatting remotely with Dr. Stephen Morris at the Burn Center in Salt Lake City, “I put my hands in front of the video screen, and he could zoom in close on the picture and advise Mary Anne what to do,” he recalls. Ten days later, healing nicely, Dale returned to the clinic for a follow-up telehealth exam with Dr. Morris. “Telemedicine can connect you to the right care, from the right specialist,” says Dale.

       “I’ve seen lives lost because people didn’t have access to emergency care,” says James Bush, M.D., Wyoming Department of Health Medicaid Medical Director and the Wyoming Telehealth Consortium Chair. “Patients in rural Wyoming-and rural communities everywhere—deserve world-class health care. Farson is a great example of bringing the doctor directly to the patient to access and treat the injury or illness,” says Bush.

       Using telemedicine in Farson would not be possible without Mary Anne‘s vision and leadership. “Time could be life or death. Thanks, many times, thanks,” Dale recalls, and adds a personal story on rural living and receiving medical treatment. “In 1985 my mom got sick. I wanted her to visit, but she was concerned that I lived in a rural town. I said mom come live with me in Wyoming. She said she didn’t have a doctor here and the doctors are too far away.” Dale chocked up and made this statement, “Today, in Farson, telemedicine can get you a good doctor in rural Wyoming.”

       Mary Anne Mines hopes others will follow Farson’s example. In fact, today, Eden Valley Telehealth Service is a pilot program for the entire western side of Wyoming. “Every community needs something like this,” she asserts.  “It’s amazing what a community this size can accomplish when people and organizations work together.  I feel great and it’s truly amazing to me the help I received. I could not have done this by myself.”

       In Wyoming, 79 percent of people live in areas described as rural or frontier for healthcare purposes. Nationally, this figure is about 20 percent. Rural communities have unique healthcare needs and opportunities. The Wyoming Department of Health Office of Rural Health works to support healthcare quality and availability across the state.

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