Telemedicine continues to be one of the most exciting advancements in the delivery of healthcare today. The benefits are significant and legislation throughout the United States is being passed to provide parity between a telemedicine visit and a live, in-person doctor visit. At a high level, telemedicine is about extending the reach of healthcare and providing care to those who may not have access to specialists and other needed experts.
Within telemedicine there are a number of very specific applications that are finding their place in hospitals throughout the country and the world. Telestroke is the application of telemedicine technology for the diagnosis and treatment of stroke victims.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 795,000 people in the United States have strokes and 130,000 of those stroke victims lose their lives. One of the greatest allies to a stroke victim is time. The sooner a patient is able to be seen and diagnosed by a doctor, the higher likelihood of a positive outcome. Many of the treatment options available today are highly effective but require a rapid diagnosis.
Of the many treatments out there, two are particularly time sensitive. Thrombolytic drugs dissolve the clots that block the flow of blood to the brain. These drugs need to be given as quickly as possible. Another option is tPA which is an enzyme that can help dissolve blot clots as well. It is found naturally in the body and if given within three hours of stroke symptom onset, it has a high success rate ofpreventing the stroke from occurring. This, however, is highly dependent upon the recognition of early stroke signs and symptoms.
The application of telemedicine to stroke, or telestroke, is usually deployed in a hub and spoke model. Hospitals with stroke/neurology services serve as the hub and allow connections from outlying or rural hospitals, known as spokes. Many of these rural hospitals simply do not have access to neurology and stroke specialists so these hubs can assist with timely diagnosis and treatment.
The technology of telemedicine allows neurologists to remotely examine patients when they are admitted to an emergency room or the hospitals. These doctors can review CT scans and other diagnostic tests quickly and make real-time decisions on initial treatment.
Beyond the obvious benefits to the patient, there are several other key advantages to telestroke including:
- Reduced Costs: For hospitals who have established a comprehensive stroke care center, the investment is significant. This prevents smaller hospitals from implementing these critical programs. With a telestroke program in place, patient care is not sacrificed when budgets are not available.
- Fewer Transfers: When facilities are lacking the specialists needed to care for strokes, it can become necessary to transfer those patients to larger, more distant facilities who offer a stroke center. The cost of these transfers is incredibly high, both for the patient and the medical facility. With remote specialists on hand, patients can stay in one facility, get the care they need, reduce the risk of their condition worsening, and ultimately save the system money.
- Training: When local doctors get exposed to stroke specialists they are able to get real-world training on key stroke indicators and how to rapidly respond to them. This type of training can make the difference between a full recovery and a life of stroke complications.
The application of video conferencing and telemedicine technology to healthcare is truly exciting. As facilities continue to bring this technology on board, patients will be the ultimate beneficiaries. The highest level of healthcare diagnosis and treatment should not be reserved for those who live in proximity to major medical centers. Telemedicine technology has the potential to reduce or eliminate both geographic and financial barriers that can prevent access to high quality healthcare for everyone.