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Virtual medicine: Grant to give rural areas electronic access to ETSU physicians

Rex Barber • Jan 31, 2012 at 5:28 PM

Soon patients in rural counties across the region will have access to East Tennessee State University doctors without coming to Johnson City.

The ETSU College of Medicine will develop a telemedicine program to deliver physician specialty and sub-specialty services to five rural counties in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant.

The $191,600 grant to the medical school will be augmented by $96,000 from ETSU to get the program started. The five counties that will benefit from the telemedicine project are Hancock and Johnson in Tennessee, Harlan in Kentucky, and Smyth and Tazewell in Virginia.

Larry Potter, Johnson County mayor, said the grant was good for his county’s citizens because it will make medical diagnoses faster. Johnson County is a good 50 miles from Johnson City, depending on the specific location, so any doctor’s office visit to ETSU physicians would involve a full day.

“I think where we are it’s a day’s travel more or less, so you know that should help some patients in Johnson County,” Potter said.

Potter thanked ETSU for helping Johnson County through rural development programs, because it helps with education in the county and also the overall health of Johnson Countians.

“You know, you live there, you don’t really think of being rural, but we are,” Potter said. “And ETSU has always stepped up to the plate in educational resources.”

The telemedicine system will involve the installation of high-definition videoconferencing equipment that will allow ETSU physicians specializing in high-risk obstetrics, gerontology, pediatrics and infectious diseases to consult with physicians at rural facilities. ETSU specialists also will be able to perform patient examinations remotely, according to the school.

Barbara Sucher, associate dean of continuing medical education at the College of Medicine, was the principal investigator on the grant.

“We’re trying to impact the health care of the population in this region,” she said. “And so our idea is to provide clinical services to patients in the communities where they live, so they don’t have to drive down to Johnson City.”

Sucher said counties receiving the telemedicine equipment had patients who were already coming to Johnson City for services.

“It makes sure that patients are seen, followed up with,” Sucher said.

Sucher said the school plans to install the telemedicine equipment and begin educating staff in the clinics or hospitals on how to use it by the end of the summer.

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