Residents of rural America have long grappled with a disportionately low number of physicians.
According to the journal Health Affairs, there are only 46 physicians for every 100,000 people who live in rural areas -- less than half the number of physicians available for people in urban areas. In other words, while almost a quarter of the population lives in rural America, less than 10 percent of physicians practice there. Telemedicine significantly reduces this gap, enabling more people access to healthcare, wherever they are.
The Thinklabs One digital stethoscope is a standard part of the telemedicine experience. A basic primary care telehealth visit involves taking blood pressure; examining the ear, nose and throat; and listening to the heart and lungs. With One, a doctor can hear patients perfectly from a distance, and also can record sounds, attach them to a patient record, or send the recordings to a colleague for consultation.
“Wherever there’s a person who needs healthcare and access to healthcare services, that’s where telemedicine is really valuable,” says Nina M. Antoniotti, executive director of telehealth and clinical outreach at Southern Illinois University.
Antoniotti is a veteran in the field, bringing more than 20 years of experience in developing virtual care strategies to her role at SIU. Prior to assuming her current position, she was director of telehealth business at Marshfield Clinic in Central Wisconsin. The goal of that program, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human and Human Services, was to assess the business case for using telemedicine in an integrated healthcare delivery system.
“The federal government was interested in whether telehealth was feasible and practical, and whether it could be used in an integrated healthcare delivery system to effectively improve access and have a positive impact on health outcomes,” Antoniotti explains.
Telemedicine began to evolve in the early 1990s, when the federal government started funding large-scale telehealth programs. In those early days, Marshfield Clinic was one of the only health systems in the country that was positioned to be successful, from a business planning perspective, in conducting telehealth outreach. By the end of her tenure, Antoniotti and her colleagues had begun to look at telemedicine as they did any other initiative - with the same focus on clinical, operational and business considerations.
“We realized that this is how we are going to take care of people in the future,” Antoniotti says, “and the future is now.”
The SIU School of Medicine and Health Plan is located in Springfield, Ill, with a population of around 117,000; the SIU Medical Center is based in Carbondale, Ill., population 26,256. Today, SIU Health provides access to quality health care services to underserved groups in these and other surrounding communities.
In the town of Benton, Illinois, for example, nearly three hours away from Springfield and even farther from speciality services, Antoniotti says a person can wait six months or longer to see a specialist. Not only do patients in small towns like Benton accept telemedicine, Antoniotti says, they love it.
“Telemedicine is truly patient-centered care,” she says. “Patients consistently rate care via telehealth better than in-person care.”
Antoniotti believes the biggest obstacle to acceptance of telemedicine is getting past the misconceptions held by physicians. “Physicians believe patients want an in-person consult, but that’s changing as more people are using telemedicine to fit busy lifestyles, and fewer people have the funds to travel for health care,” she says.
SIU now has 15 sites deployed, involving 130 physicians, and plans to serve more than 1,000 patients per month by the end of this year.
Why did Antoniotti choose Thinklabs One digital stethoscope for their program? Working in the field for more than 20 years, she has experienced the transformation and evolution of technologies, from a 56k dial-up modem to a network device that required software - and patience - to connect. Although some of the devices could be managed from an IT perspective, practitioners could never really tell if they were connected. Most worrisome, some of the devices were susceptible to network upgrades and outages.
“With 400 units online, if one went down, it would take the whole system down,” Antoniotti says.
By early 2015, SIU was using a stethoscope that required multiple software installations and firewalls, and was consuming precious time and resources. At the 2015 ATA convention in Los Angeles, Antoniotti was introduced to Thinklabs, and her group went back to Illinois with the desire to test Thinklabs One in their telehealth environment. She and her colleagues were impressed by its sound quality and ease of use.
“I connected the Thinklabs One to our Codec, turned it on and picked up headphones. You can just pick it up and go,” she says, noting, importantly, there are no extra steps for the clinicians.
“All the doctors want to know is, can you hear the stethoscope sounds as well as you can in person? And they can,” Antoniotti says. “Clinicians are actually surprised by how well they can hear heart sounds, lung sounds and other auscultated sounds.”
Thinklabs One provides awesome audio clarity and power, as well as the ability to “plug and play”, with no special software or licensing fees required, making it a favorite of clinicians, administrators, and IT professionals alike.
Thanks to Thinklabs stethoscope technology and the telehealth outreach efforts of SIU, communities in Southern and Central Illinois have access to quality health care.