Telehealth Grows to Meet New Needs

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COLUMBIA - The Missouri Telehealth Network (MTN) allows physicians and doctors to provide clinical services through telecommunication technology for patients who do not have easy access to health care. Telehealth in Missouri began in the mid-90s and has been growing rapidly the past couple of years. MTN has worked with the University of Missouri Health System (UMHS), which is one of MTN's biggest partner locations. UMHS offers more than 29 specialties, including psychiatry and dermatology as the most popular departments.

In fiscal year 2012, 69 University Health professionals in 29 specialties conducted approximately 1,800 clinical encounters using telehealth, and more than 25,000 patients have seen physicians and doctors via telehealth as well.

Karen Edison, a dermatologist at UMHS and the medical director for MTN, has seen the growth of telehealth in Missouri because she started working with MTN around the same time MTN started. As a doctor, Edison said telehealth is an important step for the future of health care and it really benefits the patients more than the doctors.

"You can use telehealth to really take health care to people wherever they are, you can use telehealth to hook up the primary care office to the specialty office, and there are many other uses of telehealth in this milieu," Edison said.

Laine Young-Walker, vice-chair of the department of psychiatry, said telehealth was especially effective when the Joplin tornado hit and created challenges with mental services.

"We stepped in for about 90 days and we provided telehealth services, mental health services, to either people who already had psychiatric treatment or people who were having new symptoms," Young-Walker said. "It was a way for us to really help in Joplin in a way that we could not have helped of each of us had driven down there to see patients everyday." 

Telehealth is not just used for medical services, but also for educational and administrative use. However, whether it is a physician speaking to a patient or a professor talking to a medical student, high broadband access is vital to the telehealth system.

The director of MTN Rachel Murux said broadband is one of the barriers of the telehealth services. "We're working on better broadband access around the state and more affordable broadband around the state. I think telehealth is very challenging because it's such a rapidly changing environment for the technology. So we have to continually invest in the new technology and test it out and make sure that it's something that we would recommend that people can use," Murux said.

Despite occasional technological issues, new telehealth projects are coming up, such as Telehealth Love and Care. This will be a free service for parents to see their babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) from home, a local library or a referring hospital by using a video system.