As part of an ongoing effort to promote and support telehealth projects in the state, the Alabama Office of Rural Health (AL SORH) has helped a Critical Access Hospital (CAH) attain funding for equipment that can facilitate telewound care locally for its patients.
“Right now, money is tight in Alabama,“ said Debra Robbins, SORH Program Manager. “There are very limited state funds. But we still can help facilitate telehealth.” For example, the AL SORH had some SHIP money leftover last year, Robbins said, which they are using to reimburse Washington County Hospital (WCH), a CAH in a very rural part of the state. The SHIP grant paid for half of the cost of telemedicine equipment and the hospital paid the balance.
“They had patients both in the hospital and coming into the hospital with wounds that needed care,” Robbins said. “Many of those patients had to be transferred to a tertiary hospital 62 miles away to see a wound care specialist. They realized they could do wound care consultations via telehealth. The hospital is hoping to save $80,000/year, but if it proves to be saving them $20,000/year, it will still be worth it.” The initial service will provide wound care for inpatients, swing bed patients and nursing home patients.
“We’re also trying to connect them with other services they can use telehealth equipment for besides wound care,” Robbins said. “For example, we’re trying to connect them with a telepsychiatrist out of Mobile. Right now, if a psychiatric patient presents to the hospital, an ER physician has to help them; telepsychiatry would help them have true psychiatric care.” Future plans include writing a case study that will document the hospital’s savings and return on their investment, and the resulting level of patient satisfaction.
The AL SORH also routinely collaborates with the Alabama Partnership for Telehealth (APT) and is currently supporting an agreement between a large tertiary hospital and five rural hospitals for telestroke (stroke care via telehealth). “Our relationship with the APT is one of collaboration and support, since it will help alleviate physician shortages in rural areas,” said Robert Boyles, AL SORH Rural Programs Coordinator and Recruiter. “We believe you have to market the technology, as so many people in our state are unaware of how it could benefit them.”
In addition, the AL SORH is trying to teach CAHs in the state that telehealth doesn’t necessarily involve expensive equipment or a big initial investment. “Cost can be detrimental to telehealth,” Boyles said. “If you want a mobile cart with tilt and pan capability, Bluetooth capable stethoscope and otoscope, you’re talking an amount approaching $30,000. But you may be able to get by with a laptop or equipment you already have.”