Jun 18 2019

Georgia Telemedicine Initiative Bolsters Health in Rural Areas

Through Cisco telepresence technology, the Georgia Department of Public Health extends access to specialized health care.

Angie Harrell lives in Valdosta, Ga., with her son Avery Harrell. He suffers from hyperthyroidism, an immune disorder that causes an overproduction of certain hormones. Although Avery's disease is under control, he benefits from the care of a medical specialist.

Harrell once traveled hours outside of the Valdosta area to find medical care for her son, but now she can simply remain in her own town thanks to an initiative of the Georgia Department of Public Health. The GDPH has established telemedicine centers across the state, providing parents like Avery with access to advanced medical care via doctors who consult through Cisco telepresence technology.

"As a parent, of course you would do anything for your children. It actually allows the stress level in the home to be where you do not have to have to worry about missing work, logistics of that nature, missing school, now that he is older," Harrell tells StateTech.


State Healthcare Agency Plans Telemedicine Expansion

Sandee Simmons, GDPH Children's Medical Services Program Manager for the South Health District, which includes Valdosta, describes her city as part of a rural area about 20 miles from the Florida state line. It's also about four hours from Atlanta.

"It's a small community. A lot of people know each other. Big on football, big on activities for your kids. So, it's a good community to live in," Simmons says. "So many times these children in our area do not have access to pediatric specialists. The closest pediatric specialist we have is Atlanta or Augusta, and that's a three- or four-hour drive."

Simmons’ facility specializes in child care, and she sees many asthma cases. State medical personnel are able to help families deal with medical challenges like asthma with the telemedicine facility. Asthmatic kids in the program, for example, stay healthier because they can see a doctor on a monthly basis by visiting the South Health District offices, located in downtown Valdosta.

Suleima Salgado, GDPH Director of Telehealth, Telemedicine and Rural Health Initiatives, says that was the plan all along. Georgia has connected all of its 159 counties via the telemedicine network.

"We use that for a variety of services, whether it just be one-on-one consultations, breastfeeding education, nutrition education and professional development, distance learning for our nursing staff. But we also use it for two-way video for patient education, behavioral health, mental health consultations. On top of that, we have about 28 telemedicine programs currently deployed throughout the entire state. Our goal is to increase that to about 50 in the next two years," Salgado says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how state and local government agencies extend citizen services with telepresence tech.

Tech Investments Ease Medical Concerns for Busy Families

To roll out the Cisco solution across the state, GDPH relied upon a traditional "hub-and-spoke" IT model, says Roger Bunch, GDPH IT Manager for the Southeast Health District.

"The infrastructure that we incorporate, the Cisco router switch, is integrated into the existing data center that's already on-premises, so we can install our equipment to an existing data rack," Bunch says.

He adds, "The goal was to connect all 159 counties within the state of Georgia. To achieve that goal, we needed dedicated connectivity, so we had to make sure we have quality of service running over our internet connections. And we chose symmetrical bandwidth, which tested out to be the best versus asymmetrical bandwidth, and which guarantees us the same speeds up and down."

GDPH was able to achieve its goals relatively quickly with the assistance of CDW, Salgado says. CDW made site visits and took the time to understand how the department uses video in support of telemedicine in its various hospital facilities.

"From there moving forward, they’re able to help guide us as we're looking at roadmaps and sustainability programs and expansion of services to really tell us what's best suited for our clients — and not only from a cost perspective, but really analyze those details and tell us what direction we should be going in and then what will be the best cost-saving measures for us to sustain such a program," she adds.

The result to date has been a healthier and happier community in Harrell's eyes.

"I feel that in the state of Georgia, they definitely have taken care of the families and have heard the families’ concerns. And this is a very good way to help families, who can utilize this facility and be able to have access — where you don't have to have all the logistics of rooting up the family and having to take them to doctor appointments," Harrell says.

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