Global Partnership Believes Telehealth is the Future of Healthcare

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Paula-Guy-thumbThe Georgia Partnership for TeleHealth began a decade ago with the mission of bringing healthcare to rural sections of its state. A little over two years ago, its reach began to expand beyond the United States and into such countries as Guatemala, Honduras, Zambia, and Nicaragua.

Paula Guy, chief executive officer, said it was only logical to change the partnership’s name to the Global Partnership for TeleHealth in light of its international growth.

Georgia is leading the United States in telehealth, Guy said, and the Global Partnership is one of the many reasons for this, with 800 in-points and 250 participating physicians. She said the partnership covers the whole continuum of care, from home-health monitoring to primary care.

Doubling its encounters annually

According to Guy, the partnership has nearly doubled every year in the number of telehealth encounters that are being done. Last year, over 200,000 encounters were completed. In 2013, it was 136,000 encounters.

“And we’re expecting that to double this year,” she said.

Even though the public as a whole still sees telehealth as a novelty, Guy said the proof is overwhelming that it works, and now, all of the insurers in Georgia are paying for it. Managed-care organizations also assist with funding. Governors from such states as Florida and Alabama have solicited the partnership’s services.

All told, the Global Partnership for TeleHealth is currently in eight countries and 16 states.

Partnering with a variety of organizations

The Global Partnership for TeleHealth will partner with virtually any entity that is interested in bringing telemedicine to its service base, including schools, jails, hospitals, clinics, physician offices, nursing homes, urgent-care centers, and stroke centers.

“It’s a variety,” Guy said. “Just about any kind of facility that provides healthcare are partners of ours. And what we do is basically we provide the tools that enable our partners to do telemedicine successfully.”

Originally, the partnership was grant-funded, but once the grants ran out, Guy said the organization started charging monthly fees to belong to the network. Physicians also pay a fee to be on the network. But the benefits are sterling, she said, and feature a dedicated HIPAA-compliant network, strong IT support, and an advanced scheduling system.

Beyond patient consultations, the network is also used for continuing education, grand rounds, and many other healthcare-related activities.

“The ones who get the technology embrace it,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do in educating physicians on what telemedicine is and what it can do to enhance their practices. It is almost every day that I speak to a physician, and they don’t have a clue as to what telemedicine really is and that telemedicine can really be equal or superior to what they can see in their office.

“But once they see it and can use it on their smartphone or iPad, they’re amazed.”

Changing minds and enriching lives

Guy is quick to emphasize that what the partnership does not do is phone triage, but the “real deal.”

Physicians can use the telemedicine technology to see their patients for a multitude of problems, including conducting ear, eye, nose, and throat examinations; listening to heart and lung sounds with Bluetooth technology; and performing ultrasounds with USB technology.

“With telemedicine, they can be seen, evaluated, and diagnosed,” Guy said. “I could tell you story after story.”

One anecdote involved a child who was perceived as difficult by his teachers. Because of this, his education was handled one-on-one with a ParaPro. Thanks to telemedicine, the child was correctly diagnosed with autism by a physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and was placed on the correct medication. He is now excelling in school as part of the gifted program.

“Telemedicine was a life-changing experience for the kid, for the school, the teachers, and for that mom,” Guy said.

Expanding into isolated, impoverished areas

A few years ago, Guy was preparing to go on a mission trip to an orphanage in Guatemala with her friend, Dr. Donald Hines, from LSU. On a whim, she took the telemedicine equipment with her, not knowing if it would work.

When she arrived at the orphanage, she was surprised to find that she could connect with some doctors at LSU. The LSU doctors diagnosed a young lady at the orphanage with a bad murmur and instructed her to have emergency surgery.

Word quickly spread and soon the partnership was asked to go down to Honduras and bring the technology to several clinics that were in the middle of nowhere. Miraculously, Guy said, the clinics still had Internet and a cell tower.

The partnership has since worked with a veterinarian group from South Dakota who went to Kazakhstan to handle some issues among the livestock. The International Health Alliance also funded telemedicine endeavors in Africa and specifically Zambia.

Thanks to the partnership, the Northside Hospital out of Atlanta is connected with a hospital in Macedonia on a daily basis to provide neonatal intensive-care services. The Macedonia hospital has since seen a dramatic decrease in ER visits and readmissions.

Currently, the partnership is working with the Ministries of Health in eight other countries, including China.

Getting the attention of the U.S. government

Telemedicine is opening up gateways of diplomacy around the world, but so far, Guy said, the U.S. government doesn’t seem to grasp the technology’s full diplomatic potential. She has presented the partnership’s work before the Office of Planning and Budget and before the FDC, and while they were interested, Guy said she “would love to have a better opportunity to share what we’re doing.”

Guy said the partnership prides itself on being equipment agnostic. Instead of being owned by one particular company, the partnership is able to experiment with various technologies, because it knows that telemedicine is more about the future than the latest upgrade.

“Telemedicine is changing lives,” Guy said. “It is not about the technology, and it’s not even going to be called telemedicine in the next five years. It’s just going to be the way we access our care, and either you get on the train now or you’re going to be left behind.”

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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