Telemedicine advances making difference in northwest Alaska

Posted: Sunday, September 03, 2000

KOTZEBUE (AP) -- A young child is rushed to a village health clinic in rural Alaska with a large fish hook gouging his arm. In seconds, a doctor is on the scene via satellite, the hook is removed and the patient is all right.

Stories like this one are beginning to be told in the Bush, thanks to advances in telemedicine technology.

''With video, the doctor was able to see what was going on and talk the health aide through it,'' said Dr. Janet Shackles, medical director at Maniilaq Health Center.

Three villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough were the first to be connected with Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue using new video technology that allows doctors miles away to do just about everything short of hands-on surgery.

This advanced technology was installed in Selawik in June and in recent months added to clinics in Noorvik and Kiana. The Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network plans to eventually link all 10 villages in the borough and Point Hope to the system.

Maniilaq is the first site to receive the technology through this program, but the project doesn't end there. AFHCAN was awarded $31 million in federal money to connect 235 villages in Alaska.

With the new technology, doctors can see things that weren't available with still images, such as a patient's range of motion if there is an extremity injury.

''It's going to bring a wide range of use,'' said Shackles.

In the villages, the equipment is installed in a room where most of the emergency activity occurs. Meanwhile, back in Kotzebue, the new technology is in the radio room, a room with many communications technologies.

The camera in the remote locations is operated by the doctor in Kotzebue so she can move it where she needs to while ''examining'' the patient.

Shackles said the purpose behind the new equipment is to give doctors more information so they can better care for patients.

''It's a lot faster and a lot easier to look at a picture,'' she said. ''A picture is worth a thousand words.''

Eugene Smith, Maniilaq's chief information officer, said the clinic treats about seven patients a day via distance medicine. The new system allows doctors to actually see patients. A lot was left to the imagination with an earlier system, where the local health practitioner was literally the eyes and ears of the physician.

''We are the first to roll out the next generation of equipment,'' said Smith. The new system uses T-1 Internet links.

The AFHCAN money will take care of new equipment and installation and first year's maintenance, Smith said. After that, Maniilaq will pick up the cost.

The system Maniilaq is using provides good-quality graphics so the doctors can walk health aides through the procedures and is relatively easy to use so those who are working with it can concentrate on medicine and not technology.

The technology improves health care for patients where isolation and sometimes delayed medevacs can mean life or death. It also can save money by treating patients in the villages rather than fly them to hub communities.

But, the new technology won't make doctors obsolete. ''It makes health care better,'' said Smith.

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