Telemedicine equipment offers rural villages vital medical link

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A state technology team flew Monday to Kotzebue to install and activate some new telemedicine equipment.

The system will connect health aides in 11 villages around the region with doctors in urban areas using digital, video and voice links.

About 235 sites around the state -- most of them in remote villages -- are eligible for the new equipment.

Alaska started receiving more than $30 million in federal money a couple of years ago to bring more cost-effective health care to the state using telemedicine.

A group called the Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network is using the cash to design and oversee delivery of the technology.

Dr. Janette Shackles, medical director of the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue, said the benefits are obvious. In the past she's had to rely solely on a community health aide's description of a problem.

''You're kind of playing 20 questions,'' she told the Anchorage Daily News.

Telemedicine gives the distant physician an image to study. Health aides can use video equipment to send a picture of something like an ear infection to a protected Web server. A digital camera can show a skin rash or open wounds.

Video teleconferencing allows distant patients and doctors to talk ''face to face'' through video cameras.

Access in rural Alaska to health care specialists has improved steadily. Health aides remember in the 1960s writing letters to doctors or using two-way radios. Then came the telephone and fax machine.

''One of the worst nightmares was trying to explain a rash over the phone,'' said Maniilaq's Eugene Smith. ''For a doctor to do a diagnosis over a phone call was pretty phenomenal back then.''

The Maniilaq Association will take a week or two to fly the equipment to all the villages.

The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Sitka is the next group scheduled to get the new equipment. Sites elsewhere around Alaska will follow.

Officials are hoping that all the sites will be connected by February of 2002.

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