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Sirens echo as emergency doors are thrust open, and a patient is rushed into the hospital. But instead of travelling down the hall to a regular operating room, the doctors file into a room and press a button on a large TV, instantly connecting with fellow doctors at a larger hospital.

This service is called telemedicine, or telehealth, and allows doctors and physicians at smaller hospitals to communication with a larger population of specialists at a nearby facility.

Researchers in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa released a study in the February edition of Health Affairs, a health policy journal, showing the benefits of telehealth services, specifically in emergencies and in rural areas.

“The idea is that various forms of telemedicine, including tele-emergency, have been proliferating in recent years,” said Andy Potter, a Ph.D. student in the College of Public Health and a co-author of the study. “Because of a variety of forms of telemedicine, and sort of a lack of a limited number of large studies about the outcomes of the program, we thought it was important to test the program as well as to document what was already in the literature.”

For their study entitled “Lessons from tele-emergency: Improving Health Care Quality and Health Outcomes by Expanding Support for Rural Care Systems,” Potter, along with the rest of the team, interviewed staff, administrative members, and patients at rural hospitals to determine if such technology was helpful or a hindrance.

They overwhelmingly agreed the technology caused them to feel safer, better supported, and more secure in their hospital.

“They provide an additional level of expertise and support…to people who may be faced with emergencies,” said Clint MacKinney, a doctor with the UI College of Public Health. “It expands the rural emergency care routine [and provides] better care and timely care.”

Jon Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, said needing more timely care is often the case with stroke victims.

“[With a stroke] there is a ‘golden hour’ to be diagnosed and treated,” he said. “If they have the ability to be seen by a neurologist who can identify the stroke, then in certain occasions they can administer certain drugs and appropriate treatments, and lives can be saved.”

Linkous said saving lives is the most important part, but that it can’t be accomplished without a change in the health care system.

“With all of the growth and the burden of health care, we have a responsibility to look at cost-effective ways to look at care, improve quality of care, and reduce the cost of care,” he said. “Much of it is coming out of tax payers, or people who pay for health insurance, so we have a high need to reform healthcare [and despite disagreements], there’s pretty much a unanimous feeling that we need to start using this [technology] in much better ways.”

MacKinney also said he thinks changes in health care will make the difference. However, he said the technology could range in prices, which might be a possible barrier.

“In the current environment, the health care payers are interested in lower costs,” he said. “In a service, even though it demonstrates improved quality and improved service, if it’s more costly, it’s going to be more difficult to promote it across the country.”

But Potter said he is confident in the growth of similar services, as he has already noticed a “rapid expansion” of telemedicine and tele-emergency technology.

“There is experimentation of other kinds of telemedicine [as well as] people basically taking pictures and sending them to physicians,” he said. “There are many different ways of using technology in ways that were not used before to receive healthcare.”

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