October 27, 2016

Telemedicine: A Solution for Delivering Services in Last Mile Communities

Written by Baby Science Live Coverage Team

Parents holding baby

What if receiving the best possible care was no longer a question of distance to the nearest pediatric emergency room, intensive care unit, or specialist? What if the most remote communities could have the same access to top-quality pediatric care as seen in the examination rooms of the best-resourced facilities in major developed cities?

Perhaps technology can be a bridge. In a fascinating session at this week’s American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition, the power and potential of telemedicine was on display. Telemedicine, the use of in-person and remote care enhanced by telehealth technology, has the power to bring much-needed expertise to some of the hardest-to-reach settings. By pairing video, robots and mobile technology with traditional in-person care, newborns, infants, and children could potentially have even greater access to care that meets their specific needs.

In remote areas such as the Coos Bay, Oregon community where session moderator Dr. Carla McKelvey works, there is no shortage of pediatricians, with 10 serving a population area of roughly 60,000. However, with more than 650 annual births at the local hospital — the only hospital with OB/GYN services two hours north and south of Coos Bay — sometimes the complexities of a birth and baby’s first days can require more specialized care than is available within the local professional community.

This is where telemedicine helps “fill in the gaps,” so to speak. The closest neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is more than two hours away. So at Coos Bay, robots and video conferencing allow NICU specialists, as Dr. McKelveey put it, to virtually serve as a “second pair of eyes,” by providing guidance for procedures and building relationships between the NICU doctors and the family in case a transfer is necessary.

For settings where access to pediatricians and pediatric specialists is even more challenging — specifically areas where the overall health workforce faces shortages across the board — the AAP recommends the use of telemedicine to strengthen care systems. Whether in rural America, urban city centers, or remote global areas, telemedicine could help address what the World Health Organization has identified as a global health workforce shortage reaching near-crisis levels.

Telemedicine is not without its challenges. The logistics can be difficult, there can be a perceived lack of connection in the patient experience and many providers aren’t yet experienced in using technology so integrally in their practice. Yet the promise and future of telemedicine is there, and as utilization increases, there can be a much-needed extension of traditional pediatric care merging technology, science and care to truly bring about the best health outcomes for those in hard-to-reach locations.