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Outreach to rural residents focus of UVa. medicine program

Story by Chris Graham

I’ve written about the struggle that government leaders in rural communities in Virginia are facing trying to gain broadband access for their residents and businesses and industries.
An aspect to this story that had not come to mind until a couple of weeks ago has to do with the use of broadband to enhance the delivery of health-care services in rural areas.
A federal grant to the University of Virginia Office of Telemedicine will augment the 14-year-old program by providing funding for the construction of high-speed Internet networks linking rural medical providers to facilities with more sophisticated resources – and linking patients in rural areas to specialists and subspecialists that tend to be based in metro areas.
“All this funding is to develop a more robust telecommunications infrastructure in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will be the infrastructure over which we and other medical centers support telemedicine services for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Karen Rheuban, the medical director of the UVa. Office of Telemedicine, in an interview for this week’s “Augusta Free Press Show.”

Since 1993, the UVa. Office of Telemedicine has facilitated more than 11,000 clinical encounters between patients and doctors in more than 32 different specialties and subspecialties – and has provided thousands of hours of distance learning for patients and health professionals.

“Our telemedicine program is geared to enhancing access for patients who don’t have those particular subspecialty services in their community,” Rheuban said. “Our major goal is to enhance access, but certainly not to compete with existing providers. And so we’ve targeted communities who are missing certain specialty and subspecialty services, and have worked in conjunction with the local community providers.

“The goal, then, is to enhance the broadband footprint in Virginia and across the nation so that access to broadband services won’t be a challenge for telemedicine providers who wish to reach out and serve,” Rheuban said.

“The patients are the recipients of this. That’s our goal,” Rheuban said. “So the patient would be referred by their primary-care physician for their specialty or subspecialty consultation. And we know that in Virginia we have a reasonably-sized primary-care workforce, but we have challenges with specialists and subspecialists in rural communities. And as you alluded earlier, the need for patients to travel long distances for certain services. With telemedicine, we can support the community physicians in providing those services to their patients in their communities themselves.”

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.

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