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Telemedicine connecting rural patients with urban specialists

Ellen Abbott
Dawn Pierce of St. Joseph’s Health Center uses the hospital's telemedicine technology.";

Hospitals are using technology to help bridge a gap where there are shortages for certain medical services in rural parts of upstate New York.

Telemedicine is nothing new. Doctors have used Skype-like programs that allow specialists to talk to patients in another geographic area for years, but the practice could take off this year in New York State.

"As of January 1, 2016, New York state legislates that commercial insurers cover telemedicine services," said Jeanette Angeloro, director of outpatient behavioral health at St. Joseph’s Health Center in Syracuse.

Angeloro said that makes health care from a distance much more accessible. Right now, in a small room in the basement of its Behavioral Health Building, a computer with two screens can link a psychiatrist to more than 140 patients in other facilities from the Finger Lakes to the North Country. And, Angeloro said it’s a very good fit in the field of psychiatry, where often primary care physicians can be out of their depth when it comes to drug therapy for illnesses ranging from depression to bipolar disorder.

"Often the the primary care doctor has tried what are called psychotropic medications for this person already," Angeloro said. "But, they’re not working and so they’re not comfortable to continue that or increase the dosage, so they want a specialist."

St. Joe’s is expanding some of it’s pilot partnerships now linking specialists in Syracuse for the first time to patients connected to the Lewis County General Hospital. Michele Prince, director of ancillary services there, expects psychiatric patients to jump at the chance to follow up treatment this way.

"First of all that specialty, there’s a shortage in this area," Prince said. "And, people have to travel for that kind of service. So, if we can make it local for these people so they don’t have to drive and travel, hopefully they’ll see this will be a better access for them.”

Prince doesn’t think this will be just limited to psychiatry either.

"I know our dialysis department has expressed interest in using that with some of the nephrologists, we’ve had our dermatology clinic interested," Prince said.

St. Joe’s is looking to expand it’s telemedicine services to a North Country nursing home and Oneida Health Care in coming months. Angeloro expects growth elsewhere as well.

"I’m going go out on the limb here and say, throughout the country, it’s going to become part of what’s offered to people who are having psychiatric problems," Angeloro said. "It’s going be part of the regular normal part of possibilities for them."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.