UVA Health System speeds stroke response by bringing telehealth into the ambulance

ambulance
Telestroke units at UVA Health System can connect with stroke victims on the way to the hospital.

The University of Virginia Health System is shaving down the time it takes to get stroke victims necessary treatment by connecting them with neurologists before they even arrive at the hospital.

Building on its robust telestroke initiatives, the health system has recently connected EMS providers with the hospital’s stroke team while a patient is in the ambulance to reduce the time it takes to receive treatment. The treatment takes the form of a clot-busting drug known as TPA, Karen S. Rheuban, M.D., director of the University of Virginia Center for Telehealth told members of a Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet on Tuesday. 

Stroke victims have a three-hour window during which TPA administration is most effective. Rheuban said offering telehealth allows the stroke team to assess the patient before they arrive at the hospital.

“Our stroke neurologists are actually evaluating patients the moment they step into the ambulance and traverse the distance to UVA so that it can reduce the time for treatment,” she said.

RELATED: Midwestern health system sees benefits of telestroke unit that provides fast, efficient care

The hearing was part of a broader evaluation of the Federal Communication Commission’s support for broadband services for rural healthcare providers. Highlighting several UVA initiatives to provide telehealth services to rural providers, Rheuban urged the senators to consider expanding the FCC’s Rural Healthcare Program beyond its $400 million annual cap or explore additional options to provide broadband support for rural providers that can benefit from telehealth.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the National Rural Health Association (NHRA) have made similar calls for more funding for rural providers to access affordable broadband services.

In her written statement (PDF), Rheuban noted that broadband connectivity is “without question, the requisite underpinning of our telemedicine program,” which has offered the same standard of care as an in-person visit to more than 1,000 rural Virginians.

"In our telestroke network, patients at a rural community hospital can receive TPA—the clog busting medication—at the same rate they might receive it, because of telemedicine, if they were a Charlottesville-based patient that showed up at our emergency department," she said.

Telehealth—and telestroke, in particular—has been a critical element for some rural hospitals facing financial insolvency.  A midwestern health system with 15 hospitals in Illinois and Wisconsin recently announced that it has treated more than 1,500 emergency stroke patients through its telehealth program since it launched in 2014.