KHI News Service

KU telemedicine grant will mean $980,000 over three years

Joint effort by Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri schools aims to expand use of telehealth technologies

By KHI NEWS SERVICE | September 07, 2010

Officials at the University of Kansas Medical Center are gearing up for the launch of the new Heartland Telehealth Resource Center, which will pool expertise from KU and universities in Missouri and Oklahoma to encourage doctors and other medical providers to embrace or expand the use of telemedicine.

The resource center will be financed over three years by a $980,000 federal grant announced last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The center, a virtual entity, will draw on experts from KU’s existing Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth, the Missouri Telehealth Network at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the Oklahoma Center for Telemedicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Ryan Spaulding, telemedicine director at KU and lead investigator for the grant, said the new center will promote the use of telemedicine technology among doctors and other providers.

Telemedicine, normally used for follow-up consultations after a surgery or treatment, are seen as an effective way to connect patients in rural areas with specialists or other providers who might be hundreds of miles away.

Spaulding said patients, generally speaking, have been quicker than doctors to embrace telemedicine.

"Patients, historically, have been very satisified with telemedicine and the research all points to equal or better of quality of life for them," he said. "They've been very happy with the effectiveness. Providers, on the other hand, really are ambivalent."

Spaulding said he believes the biggest hurdle to telemedicine for providers is accepting the new methods and technology and building them into their daily work routines.

"There is a lot of interest," he said. "I get calls all the time asking about what we're doing and asking how they can be involved. But when we get into the nuts and bolts of it, many of them determine is not very feasible for their setting or maybe it doesn't fit their cost or business model. Really implementing it from scratch takes time and a lot of effort."

Spaulding said the new center's goal is to help spread the use of telemedicine by making available to providers information that will make the task of implementation easier.

Spaulding said many people believe that lack of insurance reimbursement for telemedicine is the sole or major obstacle to more widespread use of the technology.

He co-authored a report that found otherwise.

"There's a misperception even among telehealth professionals that all we need to enhance telehealth is to get insurance reimbursement for it," he said. "I held that belief for a long time. But reimbursement is only part of the puzzle. Most people will claim it is the barrier. I claim it's not the barrier, it's a barrier."

Spaulding said he became convinced the insurance question wasn't central to the issue after seeing numbers that showed, "even in states where reimbursement is mandatory, telemedicine activity has not changed."

He said that was why it was important to get the word out to doctors and other providers about the technology's benefits and how to use it. The new program also will try to foster more consumer demand for telehealth services.

KU Medical Center started its telemedicine programs in 1991 and since then has consulted with tens of thousands of patients, officials said..

“We have been a leader in this area of health care and HHS believes in our ability to show others how it works,” Spaulding said.

The new center is expected to have a toll-free, long distance telephone number within the next few days, he said. Later, the center will launch a Facebook page and explore other social media options for getting the word out.