A blinking line streams across the monitor like an old-fashioned video game, but the line isn’t a game. It’s a life.
The Center for Telehealth at the University of Mississippi Medical Center observes patients in hospitals across Mississippi as part of remote and inpatient monitoring programs. Registered nurses in Jackson can monitor patients’ heartbeat, blood pressure or blood sugar, among many other health indicators, in 62 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. The center can now provide services in more than 30 medical specialties including pediatric care, cardiology, psychology and radiology.
The telehealth center, which made its debut in 2003, is the nation’s first broadband public safety network. Just 13 years later, Mississippi’s telehealth program is serving as the model for a national implementation of the same service.
“We’re very proud Mississippi is leading in the telehealth efforts nationally. It’s nice to be a leader in something that is positive in Mississippi,” said Michael Adcock, administrator of telehealth services. “We have a provider shortage throughout the country. This is not just a Mississippi problem; this is a national problem.”
Adcock said this program is benefiting Mississippians across the board.
“We have a lot of health needs in Mississippi. Our health outcomes are not great and our state is very rural, so telehealth is the perfect solution to help improve health outcomes in Mississippi,” Adcock said. “If you look at the way the health providers and the health(care) recipients are dispersed, it’s reversed. Well over 60 percent of the providers in Mississippi are in urban areas and well over 60 percent of the patients are in rural areas.”
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker R-Miss., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, are currently using Mississippi’s telehealth program as a model for national expansion of the same service through the CONNECT for Health Act, according to Wicker’s staff. The program would help states institute patient monitoring programs and allow telehealth and remote patient monitoring to be considered as a basic benefit in Medicare Advantage.
Part of the telehealth program monitors patients in hospitals and intensive care units in Jackson. Program nurses like Sandy Wiggins, who has worked in telehealth for nearly six years, are extra eyes on many patients while nurses are out of the room. Wiggins said having another person monitoring vital signs ensures better patient care. If something seems wrong, Wiggins and others on the inpatient monitoring desk can access the video camera in the room to make sure the patient is safe and contact the nurses’ desk.
The remote patient monitoring program has received national recognition and appeared in online news organizations like Politico. Morgan Madden has worked with UMMC since 2003, but has only worked with the telehealth program for a year. Madden said his current position pairs his love of connecting with people with his nursing experience.
“This wasn’t even dreamed of when I graduated,” Madden said.
Remote patient monitoring’s most recent expansion has been to chronic disease management in patients’ homes. Adcock said he believed the program would have more than 1,000 patients enrolled by the end of 2016.
This program connects medical specialists with patients with chronic diseases on a daily basis through videochatting and data monitoring.
“People learn best in an environment where they’re comfortable, so being at home is a huge advantage,” Adcock said. “Daily home monitoring and interacting allows for real-time engagement with these patients. We educate them daily about their disease.”
Some of these services cannot be administrated without access to broadband. Adcock said the telehealth center works with local internet providers to get a connection in rural areas, but there are many areas across the nation that still have no access.
Wicker, who is the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Federal Communications Commission, questioned the coverage of rural areas in a committee oversight hearing in March.
“There is an incredible benefit to public health from the mobility fund in making sure that we continue to connect wireless-only households,” Wicker said in the meeting. “It seems to me the FCC must do no harm to existing coverage in rural states when considering future changes in Universal Service Fund support for wireless.”
According to his staff, the intersection of broadband expansion and telemedicine has long been an issue for Wicker. There has been little headway, however. The CONNECT for Health Act was introduced but not voted on in the 2016 legislative session and the Federal Communications Commission recently approved an update to its Lifeline program – a service started in 1985 which offered landline services to low-income families – which would allow low income families $9.25 a month for discounted broadband services.
Even without this broadband expansion, however, Wicker’s staff said the national use of telemedicine would still be considerable. The bill is currently still in committee.