Telemedicine Brings Emergency Help to Rural America

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Patients in rural areas are now finding better access to their doctors. Advanced technology is allowing them to connect from far away even in some emergency situations. Just this week, Gundersen Lutheran began incorporating "telemedicine," or videoconferencing, to help treat patients who need emergency care. Doctors say this new technique is cost-efficient and a great way of getting patients immediate help. "It's the next best thing to actually being truly face-to-face," said Dr. Eric Voter, medical director at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Emergency Services. Doctors at Gundersen Lutheran now have a way of providing emergency help to patients long distance. "Hooking up with telemedicine, we may be able to help them through a procedure or help with some diagnostic work on a patient and allow them to do the treatment there locally and they may not even have to transport the patient," said Voter. Dr. Eric Voter at Gundersen can now help physicians on the other side of the camera at St. Joseph's Health Services in Hillsboro with procedures that aren't as common in rural areas. "There are rare occasions where people get really sick and really needs something done right now, and then with 'telemedicine,' we're able to hook up with them directly and help them through those type of procedures," said Voter. Gundersen Lutheran is first hospital in Wisconsin to use "telemedicine" in its emergency services. Gundersen Lutheran and Mayo Clinic Health System have both used telemedicine in clinics for medical areas such as radiology, behavioral health and psychology. On any given day, clinical psychiatrist Dr. George Melnyk from Mayo will help about half of all his patients from just the click of a mouse. "It saves a lot of time in terms of driving for the patient and also driving for the provider," said Melnyk. But this technology isn't just helping patients. It's also helping doctors quality-check their work. Dr. Kiernan Minehan at Mayo Clinic Health System, says the new technology allows him to get feedback from other doctors. "If I have a particularly difficult cancer case, I can review the films and discuss the case with other providers, so it allows us, for the patient's sake, to have kind of like a 'free second opinion' if you will," said Minehan. As of right now, St. Joseph's Hospital in Hillsboro is the only hospital to which Gundersen is linked for emergency services. Hospital officials say they are considering adding the technology at hospitals in Whitehall and West Union Iowa, as well. Officials said the videoconferencing is done through a completely secure link between the two medical facilities to ensure patient privacy. (Copyright 2011 by WKBT News8000.com)