FLMC using telehealth tech

April Ray, Fort Loudoun Medical Center medical staff coordinator, from left, tests telehealth technology with FLMC emergency department manager Casey Suarez, registered nurse Amber Ditnor and Covenant Health information technology support representative John Gehringer.

Fort Loudoun Medical Center is one of several locations where Covenant Health is expanding telehealth technology to offer specialized medical services.

Telehealth utilizes telecommunications and electronic information to support long-distance health care, such as video for remote clinical assessments and consultations for patients.

“It varies to be honest with you because there’s a bunch of different modalities that come into play when you’re talking about telehealth and telemedicine,” Mike Belbeck, Covenant Health vice president of operations, said. “... Probably the first area that we really began using this technology and that’s specifically positively impacted Fort Loudoun is in the area of our stroke network. Fort Sanders Regional downtown is a comprehensive stroke center. Almost all of our facilities ... are stroke certified by the joint commission, which is an accrediting body for the hospitals and health care organizations, but the way the network kind of works and the way telemedicine comes into play is we have full-time, 24/7 coverage at Fort Sanders with what are referred to as neurohospitalists to our physicians that really are dedicated to providing inpatient services for neurological issues, stroke being a significant one.

“So when a patient comes into — let’s use Fort Loudoun as an example — the Fort Loudoun ED with stroke-like symptoms, they can provide support remotely for the emergency room physicians and for the team at Fort Loudoun to help assess that patient and care for that patient,” he added.

Belbeck also pointed to a partnership with East Tennessee Children’s Hospital that allows pediatric support for newborns.

“It’s increasingly needed to have pediatric support kind of available to deal with newborn issues and given some of the limitations of pediatricians kind of coming into the hospital anymore, that we are able to again kind of tap into their expertise as needed using telemedicine technology,” Belbeck said.

“I think what you’re going to see in the future is that for some of these kind of more difficult to recruit specialties, this is going to become the way we provide care in more kind of remote or outlying settings,” he said.

Hopes are the technology will allow “virtual” physician specialists, including neurohospitalists, critical care intensivists and neonatologists, to be at a patient’s bedside and offer timely specialized care. The technology will also typically reduce the need to transfer a patient to a larger facility.

“The technology continues to advance,” Belbeck said. “If you go back … 10 or 15 years, the ability to video chat was pretty limited and pretty cumbersome, right? Technology today makes it a lot more accessible and there’s technology that even allows, for example, with our nephrology program it’s used routinely where we have a stethoscope, a physician’s stethoscope that you now can kind of technology exists where a physician can be in this case can be between Crossville and West Knoxville, say 50 miles away, and you can listen to the patient’s heartbeat and obviously it’s important that that be accurate and clear, so the technology has advanced to allow greater capabilities for some different specialties to take advantage of this technology.

“… Bottom line is I think Covenant Health, like a lot of health systems with specialties that are difficult to recruit for in some of these outlining communities, I mean I think telemedicine is going to really, really positively impact the care that patients have access to because, again, if you think about it, they’re going to have access to specialists that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to in those outlying facilities,” he added.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee collaborated with the technology initiative and recently offered a “significant financial contribution for the purchase of telehealth equipment at Covenant Health hospitals,” according to a release from Covenant Health. The benefit is part of a multiyear strategic partnership.

Other hospitals benefiting are LeConte Medical Center, Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System and Roane Medical Center.

“Our vision is that patients at any Covenant Health hospital will have access to the care they need, regardless of whether the hospital is one of our larger Knoxville-area facilities or whether it’s a community hospital in another part of our region,” Jim VanderSteeg, president and CEO of Covenant Health, said.