State's telehealth network provides blueprint for other rural areas

In what could become a powerful use-case for telehealth in rural states, Wyoming officials are expanding their new telehealth network to 37 hospitals for everything from mental health services to remote specialty consults, according to a recent announcement out of the University of Wyoming.

In particular, the state's Medicaid office is getting behind a technology approach. In fact, James Bush, the Wyoming Department of Health's Medicaid director, is the chair of the Wyoming Telehealth Consortium, one of the partners in the new network expansion. "Wyoming is custom-made for" telehealth, Bush told the Billings [Mont.] Gazette.

He wants to push the network into all of the state's physician offices and community health centers, plus tie all of the state's medical specialty practices into the electronic system.

"The state Medicaid office strongly supports providing distance care because it brings treatment to patients sooner and it saves the cost of travel reimbursement, thereby reducing the cost to taxpayers," Bob Wolverton, instructional specialist with the University of Wyoming's Center for Rural Health Research and Education (CRHRE), said, according to the announcement.

CRHRE, in partnership with the Wyoming Telehealth Consortium, set up the Internet connectivity and video-conferencing equipment at the medical centers thanks to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grant. UW officials didn't disclose the size of the grant, but noted that FCC funds paid for 85 percent of the system installations, with the state's health department providing the remaining 15 percent.

The system makes particular sense in rural states like Wyoming, where "a large percentage" of hospitals are critical-access designated, located more than 35 miles from other hospitals, and staffing 23 or fewer patient beds, Wolverton explained. All health professionals in the state are eligible to participate, state officials say. According to the Gazette article, about 21 percent of physicians in the state already provide some sort of telehealth service.

Primary-care providers are the main drivers of the program, according to UW officials, determining the kind of specialty treatment needed, and whether that treatment is available locally. If it isn't, they can make an appointment for the patient with a specialty provider, and initiate the telehealth process, Wolverton adds.

In an interesting aside: The telehealth system also is providing an easy route for clinicians to obtain CME credit--with physicians and nurses getting up to 10,000 minutes of training just in Casper and Cheyenne, the Gazette reports.

To learn more:
- learn more from the University of Wyoming press release
- get more details from the Billings Gazette