PAHRUMP — Visiting the doctor just got faster, easier and more useful in parts of rural Nevada.
That’s because of the Nevada Broadband Telemedicine Initiative, announced Monday at Desert View Regional Medical Center in Nye County.
The $19.6 million federally funded initiative aims to increase access to specialty care, including psychiatric services, to residents in rural areas of the state. That is a big step forward from other online telemedicine tools, which are best suited for diagnosing coldlike symptoms.
The state’s newest tool, currently available at 14 Nevada hospitals along the Interstate 95 and 80 and U.S. Highway 50 corridors, is intended to help close the rural-urban health-care gap that is largely blamed on a statewide shortage of doctors.
‘Huge for patient care’
“That’s huge for patient care,” said Susan Davila, CEO of Desert View, one of the participating locations. “It’s our dream and want for our patients to be able to stay in the community.”
Thanks to high-speed internet service and new technology, rural hospitals now can quickly connect patients to a specialist in Las Vegas or Reno, saving them long drives.
Sending scans to radiologists in urban Nevada used to take the hospital two hours using its previous telemedicine system, and the video connection was choppy. With the broadband line, it takes about 15 minutes to transmit scans, Davila said, and doctors on the other end can quickly transmit results and advice back to patients.
“Every time a patient goes out of your community, there’s a huge economic impact also,” Davila said. “So just to have the access to services here to keep our patients here with the clarity the (broadband) fiber brings is absolutely huge for us.”
What the initiative doesn’t do, however, is cut down on emergency room visits, which are more expensive than seeing a primary care doctor and tend to happen when a patient is too sick to wait for a regular appointment.
At Desert View, patients who come to the emergency department can meet their distant doctors through video chat, assisted by a nurse who helps with the technology and runs required medical tests.
More sites due to join
The initiative is still in its infancy, with the 14 currently connected members of the Nevada Hospital Association expected to be joined in the coming months by 24 other government entities, including clinics and schools.
And it still doesn’t help residents in areas like Tonopah, where the local hospital closed in 2015.
To Leighanna Jones, a 26-year-old cook who moved to Tonopah two years ago with her 6-year-old daughter, Madison, that disparity is unfair.
“If there’s an opportunity, and we don’t get an opportunity being so rural, that really upsets me,” said Jones, who uses an older telemedicine system at the Renown Health clinic in town when she or her daughter has coldlike symptoms.
The hospital association worked with technology company Switch and energy providers Valley Electric Association and NV Energy to build 224 miles of broadband line that hooks into existing fiber-optic cables.
The project has been in the works since 2010.
Contact Jessie Bekker at email@example.com or 702-380-4563. Follow @jessiebekks on Twitter.
Medical care “from a robot”
Jones said talking to a doctor through a screen, while convenient, feels cold.
“For a quick check up, I’m fine with that,” she said. “But it’s hard for me to believe that a machine can take a heart rate really well, or my breathing.”
She worries the machine might fail while taking vitals, but isn’t so concerned with cybersecurity — at a hospital, medical records are electronic anyway, she said.