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Wednesday, March 25, 2009 02:02 pm

High-tech healthcare

SIU’s videoconferencing network beams specialists to rural areas

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Deborah Seale, executive director of the SIU telehealth program.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SIU PUBLIC AFFAIRS

The Southern Illinois University School of Medicine has long been the heart of healthcare in the central Illinois region, and now thanks to über-modern medicine, it’s circulating lifelines to hospitals in every corner of the state.

Since 2001, SIU has synchronized its videoconference system with 149 clinics and hospitals. The school’s staff facilitates the transmission of 46 weekly meetings and unites 90 physicians and staff from internal medicine, neurology, psychiatry and pediatric departments in two-way teaching conferences broadcast to 58 locations.

As SIU’s “telehealth” network took off, Deborah Seale, the program’s executive director, explains, staff ensured that the innovative technology was stable.

“That was the first thing — make sure the bus is running before you load it up,” she says.

Seale’s staff started working with hospital personnel in administrative and educational programs. Human resource directors from various state hospitals came together to discuss how to retain and attract employees in their areas. Medical directors brainstormed quality improvement initiatives and nurses shared ideas for staff training or educational opportunities.

“It’s the kind of thing that we do all the time, but we get together in a building somewhere,” Seale says. “Now we can do it from a distance.”

One of the SIU telehealth’s biggest priorities has become connecting medical professionals in rural hospitals with their colleagues in Springfield. Before telehealth, doctors in central and southern Illinois were isolated, Seale says; they can now use the videoconference system to develop work and support groups. Fifty hospitals in the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network have signed up for the program and meet from locations such as Salem, Mt. Carmel and Illiopolis.

After mastering the videoconference technology, staff expanded the telehealth program to include clinical care. SIU began with “teledermatology,” but now offers “telepsychiatry” and “teleneurology.”

The medicine school’s doctors developed a partnership with the Illinois Division of Developmental Disabilities in the Department of Human Services and began conducting clinical evaluations last month with patients at the Jacksonville and Murray Developmental Centers. A neurologist or psychiatrist at SIU works with an interdisciplinary team that includes a primary care physician and nurse, as well as a psychiatrist, psychologist and pharmacist, at the participating clinic to develop treatment plans for patients.

Seale says telehealth doesn’t compete with local healthcare systems, but connects and strengthens them by providing additional resources. Program administrators can think about telemedicine in two ways, she explains: Are they using technology to bring the patient to Springfield, or are they using technology to take the Springfield doctor to the patient?

“Our philosophy is that we’re taking the doc [to the patient],” Seale says. “We are a guest in your community. We are a resource. We are your contract employee.”

Seale wants to see the SIU telehealth program further develop its neurology program by focusing on stroke patients. Staff would also like to include pediatrics in clinical care.

“You can tell we’re going for those sub-specialties where there are huge shortages,” Seale says. “Neurology — there might be one downstate. There are two child psychiatrists downstate. Period.”

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