The University of California-San Diego Medical Center has teamed up with nearby Tri-City Medical Center to bring telehealth into the hospital's neo-natal ICU unit, the hospitals recently announced.
The program offers full audio and video conferencing, which Tri-City physicians can use to consult with UCSD's neonatal specialists on high-risk and emergency cases. The hope is to speed diagnoses and treatment plans for infants in distress, and possibly even reduce the need to transport fragile babies the 40 miles from Tri-City to UCSD, officials said.
"When a complex case arises our partners at Tri-City can request a consult and can contact us using the camera system," Brett Meyer, UCSD's medical director for telemedicine, said in a statement. "Our specialists can not only contribute to the care, but with telemedicine they are, in essence, virtually present in the room with the patient to render assistance."
The program may have promise. Children's Hospital of Los Angeles reported success last year with a robot-aided telehealth program that allowed specialty consults for premature infants. The hospital published a study showing that offsite physicians, using audio and video contact, could diagnose and direct treatment of at-risk babies just about as well as physicians at the bedside.
In North Carolina, a more-than-10-year-old program allows mothers to communicate with their infants, and caregivers via video and audio conferencing. "Tele-visitation has proven successful in relieving the anxiety levels of unstable moms while promoting mother and family bonding with their baby[s] and continues to be used regularly," hospital officials have said.
The Tri-City NICU program is an extension of UCSD's established telehealth process, which already covers post-ER care and stroke treatment. It will serve Tri-City Medical Center's NICU, which cares for 500 to 600 premature infants each year in its 20-bed nursery, and is the only Level III NICU in North County, hospital officials said.
Telehealth may also provide a way to keep infants out of the NICU, according to a study commissioned by the American Telemedicine Association that was published in December. With telehealth vendor Avalere, ATA reported that the Medicaid program nationwide could save $186 million over 10 years if it used telehealth services to provide intensive services to at-risk mothers, and ultimately prevent pre-term births, which make up most NICU cases.