Telemedicine furnishes lifeline to rural hospitals and clinics

South Dakota State Roundup

Published April 1, 1994  | April 1994 issue

South Dakota is tapping into one of the newest applications of today's telecommunications and information technology— telemedicine—the practice of health care delivery through interactive audio, video and data communications.

Using "off the shelf" computer hardware, such as personal computers, video cameras, digitized scanners and software specific for medical applications, telemedicine networks link rural hospitals and clinics to larger medical facilities via telephone lines. The technology allows transmission of x-rays, C-T scans, electrocardiograms and other patient information to distant specialists for expert consultation and diagnosis. Access to data banks, continuing staff education and administrative streamlining are other potential applications.

A 16-member volunteer telemedicine task force established by Gov. Walter D. Miller identified cardiology, radiology and pulmonology as the three most critical clinical areas for this new technology application.

Funded by a federal community development block grant, two demonstration projects are under way. One network links Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, with Dakota Hospital and Care Center, Vermillion, Pioneer Memorial Hospital and Home, Viborg, and Canton-Inwood Memorial Hospital, Canton. The second links Rapid City Regional Hospital with Custer Community Hospital and Philip Health Services. The task force will evaluate the effectiveness of the demonstrations over the next six months, using the information for its long-term plan.

Frontier South Dakota communities stand to gain the most, according to David Dick, administrator of Philip Health Services, a 20-bed facility 85 miles from the nearest hospital. "Telemedicine can help bridge the isolation gap for our physicians while greatly reducing the cost of providing primary care services—we simply don't have the volume here," Dick says.

"Physicians will feel less isolated and they can get the professional interplay they need and typically desire," says Debra Muller, coordinator for the telemedicine task force. "It will save on 'windshield wiper' time from the consulting physician's perspective and turn-around time from the patient's perspective."

Christine Power