Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Network for Health, Learning Has Gone Bust; but Advocates Still Say the Technology Can Help Rural Areas Get the Benefits of Big Cities

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Network for Health, Learning Has Gone Bust; but Advocates Still Say the Technology Can Help Rural Areas Get the Benefits of Big Cities

Article excerpt

Byline: WALTER C. JONES and ELIOTT McLAUGHLIN, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- A telecommunications network connecting rural classrooms and doctors' offices to urban centers that made Georgia a leader in the field has fallen into disuse and become obsolete.

When initiated in 1992, the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System, known as GSAMS, was a source of pride and seen by many as an opportunity to provide small-town residents with the education and health benefits of larger cities.

But a state audit released last month shows the system never adapted to changing technology and became so expensive and inflexible that most of its users switched to the Internet.

At its peak, 1,700 remote patients a year were examined by specialists in faraway cities, saving them stressful and expensive rides of hundreds of miles.

Educational usage has fallen from 119 schools and 30 technical colleges to just a handful.

And a state board appointed to manage the network hasn't met in years.

Yet supporters say the concept remains sound.

"I firmly believe that telemedicine or telehealth will be an increasingly important part of how we deliver health," said Max Stachura, director of the Center for Telehealth at the Medical College of Georgia.

MCG was one of the key players in telemedicine research and gained international recognition for its innovations. Though MCG would like an alternative network, it shut down its GSAMS connections to the last four participating hospitals in February and now provides consultations only for the Department of Corrections.

The Ware County Health Department was the last to jump ship. Paula Guy, director of telehealth for the county, said each GSAMS satellite office had to pay $2,693 a month to access the special trunk phone lines to transmit patient data. That made it difficult not only to stay in business, but also to convince other doctors to join the program.

Through about $1.5 million in federal grants, Ware County now operates its own telemedicine network, which provides the same services as GSAMS but at a significantly lower cost.

"We would still be using GSAMS today, even with the grants, if not for the line charges. We couldn't afford to pay $2,700 a month," Guy said.

Hal Bivins, director of maternal fetal medicine at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, said he never used GSAMS because of the cost and because the equipment was "impressively outdated." He does use the Ware County program, however. …

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