Telemedicine a focus for medical experts

Telehealth helps patients speak with rare specialists

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - For some people, a doctor's appointment could be as easy as going to school and turning on a camera. For Lloyd Sirmons, director of Southeastern Telehealth Resource Center, that is the case.

"My children over in Georgia both have used telemedicine and have connected with physicians from their schools," Sirmons said. "And that's big as a parent not to have to leave work to have your child be able to connect up and see a doctor from school. I mean that's big."

The Southeastern Telehealth Resource Center is funded through a grant program to help expand telehealth in rural areas.

"In the past you had to have bulky items and so it was very costly. It was very prohibitive to people starting telemedicine," Sirmons said. "But really as technology has changed it has allowed the startup of telemedicine to be a little bit easier."

This is just one example of a group pushing to put telehealth in Alabama. Others include universities, the state and private companies.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham expanded its telestroke sites, placing one in Selma this summer. This allows someone with a stroke to talk with a doctor before it's too late.

"You can use specialized cameras to look at the ears, the throat, or specialized skin legion," said Dr. Eric Wallace, the UAB Telehealth Program Director.

The UAB program also received a telehealth grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January. It will help fund telehealth equipment in nine rural hospitals and 10 public health departments in Alabama.

On top of this, the Alabama Department of Public health provides telehealth carts for county health departments. It received a grant, and plans to add 12 more in the next few months. This would bring the total number of carts up to 60.

Other companies like Women's Telehealth helps expand telehealth sites across the world.

"I literally can take a bluetooth stethoscope and put it on you in Birmingham or India, and hear it in my office in real time," said Tanya Mack the President of Women's Telehealth.

Women's Telehealth provides high-risk specialists for patients who need it. Mack said in Alabama, there are only 10 high-risk specialists. This makes telehealth a useful tool for those who need to speak with one.

Sirmons said one current barrier to telehealth expansion is the lack of broadband access in the state.

Governor Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act in March. It created a grant program encouraging private businesses to invest in broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

"The internet is vital to economic development, health, education, and to be honest, all areas of our modern life. This common sense legislation will help us attract new broadband to areas that need it most, especially in rural Alabama," Governor Ivey said.

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