On the sparsely settled upper peninsula of Michigan, attending a staff meeting at Marquette General Health System could mean a six-hour drive for some members of the medical team.
Teleconferencing seemed a logical step to bring patients, doctors, nurses and other staff members together, said Sally Davis, program director for telehealth at the medical headquarters in Marquette.
The health center started in 1994 with expensive videoconferencing equipment, but the availability of cheaper and more functional equipment in the past couple of years has lowered costs and allowed greatly increased usage.
"We have a lot of administrative meetings over the system," Davis said. "Were also doing a lot of telemedicine encounters, where physicians see patients or other physicians."
The PictureTel videoconferencing equipment has also brought some dramatic moments reminiscent of the television series ER. When a woman delivered her baby prematurely two hours from Marquette last Labor Day, the infant was rushed to a hospital that was equipped for intensive neonatal care, where a medical team from the University of Michigan was on hand.
Because the baby was not expected to live, the hospital had the baby baptized as the mother watched from a branch hospital via video. Then, doctors told her how they planned to save her babys life.
"Think how nice it was for the medical team to be able to explain what was happening," Davis said. "Today, the mother and baby are doing fine."
Medical centers serving rural America are seeing a big increase in the use of telemedicine. Under legislation that will go into effect Oct. 1, Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine services increases as the covered services grow to include such things as home care via videoconferencing.
Meanwhile, the cost of conferencing equipment is falling rapidly as the versatility rises dramatically.
Using teleconferencing, doctors can confer over CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) scans or X-rays, or perform physical exams by using remote sensors, including stethoscopes, blood pressure monitors and more sophisticated equipment.
Marquette, a nonprofit facility, financed its videoconferencing system with grant money.
"A room system used to cost $60,000," Davis said. "Now, the cost is probably around $10,000."