State Telemedicine Network to Be Operational by January
Wolfe, Lou Anne, THE JOURNAL RECORD
By Lou Anne Wolfe
Journal Record Staff Reporter
A 25-hospital computerized telemedicine network in Oklahoma should be functioning by December or January, Oklahoma Commerce Secretary Greg Main said Monday.
As reported last week, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce is making available $3.4 million in federal community development block grant funds for purchase of equipment, installation, training and two years of transmission costs.
Some 52 "rural" Oklahoma hospitals qualify for the system, although some are more rural than others. Main said selection of the final 25 would depend partially on whether the patient population was dominantly low-to-moderate income people, and whether the hospital could contribute some money toward the project.
Linkage of six rural hospitals to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center is already under way, funded by $550,000 in oil overcharge money. The new project, the Oklahoma Telemedicine Network, will expand that early effort. To date, Choctaw Memorial Hospital in Hugo is on line, and the hospital in Frederick should be connected by mid-September.
"Oklahoma is launching what we believe is the largest telemedicine project of its kind in the world," said Gov. David Walters at a Monday news conference announcing the project. "Politicians are given to exaggeration and understatement, and I understand that, but this is the absolute truth."
Dr. James Logan, project consultant for the Health Sciences Center, said the system would be unique because it would use computers. Existing telemedicine projects use television, he said.
The state leaders said they hope to enable rural hospitals to keep from closing, thus bolstering the fragile economies of those areas. Logan said the computer consultation provided by the equipment could stimulate competition among the providers of expertise, to the point that professional costs could be reduced.
In telemedicine, experts in medical centers in other cities could analyze medical data, such as X-rays, via the computer lines and deliver an opinion in about 60 minutes, Logan said. For some Oklahoma towns, getting an X-ray read by a board-certified radiologist can take six to eight days. From Guymon, X-rays have to be shipped to Amarillo by truck, he said.
Cost to the patients of telemedicine service is a little uncertain. Using X-rays as an example, Logan said the patient currently is charged a technical fee for use of the facilities, and a professional fee for the radiologist. That would be the same arrangement in telemedicine, he said.
What's unclear is whether the hospital would tack on a telecommunication charge as a cost to the patient, he said. In any case, treatment in rural hospitals traditionally is lower cost than in urban hospitals, so ability to stay at the rural location would be economical, Logan said.
Walters said the Rural Development Summit he convened in 1991 identified expanded and improved health care services as a rural Oklahoma priority. "With the launch of the Oklahoma Telemedicine Network, we are beginning to address that priority in a manner which will have an immediate and very positive impact," he said.
Main said a statewide telecommunications network was one of four primary strategies of "Oklahoma 2007," the vision adopted last year by Oklahoma Futures, the appointed advisory board to the commerce department. The idea also was discussed last year at the Governor's Conference on Telecommunications.
Block grant funds for the pilot project will be awarded through a competitive process, Main said. "In order to be eligible to apply, a hospital must have 100 or fewer beds, be owned by a city or county government, be nonprofit in operation and be located in a rural area," he said. Eligible applicants will be ranked according to criteria, and grants will be awarded from the top ranking down until all available funds are awarded, he said. …