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Telemed system sends Children's Colorado expertise all over the region

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Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 7:08 am | Updated: 9:12 am, Thu Dec 8, 2011.

AURORA | It seemed as if Ryan Haddon had gotten used to the ritual of the doctor’s visit.

The 6-year-old from Grand Junction was diagnosed with epilepsy earlier in the year, and regular visits with doctors from the Children’s Hospital Colorado had become an important preventive measure. Regular consultations with Children’s Hospital Colorado neurologist Carolyn Green gave Haddon and his mother, Natasha Chatterton, important guideposts in dealing with the newly discovered condition.

It was making the 250-mile commute from Grand Junction that posed challenges for Haddon and Chatterton, a single mother.

“Being a single mom with a budget, I can’t drive to (Aurora) every time he needs to be seen,” Chatterton said last week from a post in Grand Junction, communicating remotely with Green and other Children’s Hospital Colorado officials via a television screen. “This way, it’s still real.”

In 2011, Children’s Hospital conducted more than 40 telemedicine visits with patients like Haddon, children in Western Slope communities like Grand Junction and Montrose, as well as other far-flung sites like Alamosa, Lusk, Wyo. and Billings and Bozeman in Montana. Thanks to refinements in telecommunication technology, as well as a $10,000 contribution from the AT&T foundation, such remote medical visits can now make a significant difference for families far from the hospital site in Aurora.

“Our waiting list is pretty long,” Green said, speaking as the images of Haddon and Chatteron were beamed on a television screen in a consultation room in the hospital, along with state Sen. Steve King, who represents Mesa and Delta County through District 54. “Telemed visits take slightly longer, but I can see more patients,” she added, citing the toll the four-hour drive to Grand Junction can take on examination time.

The technology targets lengthy waiting times patients in rural communities may face in making time to see a Children’s Hospital Colorado physician. Because hospital outreach clinics in communities like Grand Junction fill up quickly, some patients can face wait times of up to nine months to receive follow-up care.

Combined with the scarcity of specialized care in rural communities, this type of long delay in receiving follow-up care has spurred a continued interest in harnessing broadband technology to connect doctors with patients far from the hospital’s site in Aurora. It’s only with recent improvements in connectivity, however, that telemedicine has become an increasingly legitimate field at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

With seven rooms at the hospital devoted to telemedicine technology, the facility has space to expand beyond the 45 visits conducted in 2011. Likely areas of focus for the expansion of the technology include neurology, diabetes and neurosurgery follow-ups.

Basic connectivity issues still limit the possibilities of the technology across the state. While problems with dial-up technology and speed have vastly improved in the past five years, outdated communication laws at the state level still impact the reach of telemedicine in Colorado’s rural stretches.

“We’ve acquired T-Mobile ... to bring more capabilities and broaden the radio spectrum,” said Bill Soards, regional president of AT&T Colorado. “Technology laws in Colorado (are) out of date ... The Legislature (needs) to focus on the broadband issue.”

Improving broadband access and updating state guidelines will be a focus in the upcoming session for King, who cited telemedicine as key in addressing health care gaps in his district. Since a single snowstorm can make the commute over the Continental Divide impassable, King stressed the need for streamlining and improving wireless access.

“I think this is one of the options for the future of medicine in rural areas,” King said from his perch in a room at Mesa County Health in Grand Junction.

Issues of broadband connectivity and the future of the radio spectrum didn’t seem to figure into Haddon’s mind as he sat with his mother, King and other staff from Mesa County Health last week. A typical telemed visit with Green includes a visual exam via the monitor, as well as updates on his basic condition and a treatment plan at the end of the visit.

While Haddon and Chatterton seemed to have become accustomed to the demands of a virtual doctor’s visit after a series of quarterly exams, the pressure of an expanded audience had an effect. The 6-year-old hid his face as doctors, hospital staffers and AT&T officials discussed the future of remote medicine. What’s more, Carolyn Green had to make her own adjustments as a physician.

“I did have to practice where to look on the screen,” she admitted.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or agoldstein@aurorasentinel.com

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