A physician with Rice Medical Center in rural Eagle Lake, Texas, can treat students nearly 400 miles away in tiny Sheffield (population 600) via telemedicine. His virtual tool-belt includes an electronic stethoscope that enables him to hear a patient’s heartbeat in real time and a high-definition camera to view and diagnose skin lesions. 

Since March 2015, Rice Medical Center, a 25-bed critical access hospital, has used the technology to treat students attending Sheffield’s Texas Challenge Academy – a school for “at risk” teens who have either dropped out of high school or who are in danger of doing so. 

Jim JanekMany of the students are uninsured or underinsured, notes Rice Medical Center CEO Jim Janek. Before the hospital started the program, students would miss school due to illness or not be seen by a doctor. Or they might travel more than an hour away to the nearest health clinic in Midland.

Rice Medical Center’s doctors treat students’ fevers, rashes and sprained ankles, among other ailments. There were more than 100 patient encounters at the academy last year.

“Rural areas need telemedicine,” says Janek, who received a Medicaid waiver to launch the program as a Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment project. “Telemedicine expands the opportunities we have to care for our patients. It’s not a cure all, but it improves the care we can provide.”

Russell Thomas, M.D.With support from the Episcopal Health Foundation in Houston, Rice Medical Center is expanding its school-based telemedicine services to two school districts in its Colorado County service area. The foundation provides funding for initiatives and programs focused on primary care for the underserved population throughout a 57-county area of the state. It awarded the hospital a $120,500 grant to provide equipment, training and connectivity for the program.

Janek sees telemedicine playing a critical role in helping hospitals address issues, like eliminating disparities in care, getting patients and families to take better care of their health, and improving the coordination of care across health care settings. And he says it can help maintain the long-term viability of rural hospitals that serve isolated communities scattered across large geographic areas.

“The more that we can keep our neighbors, our residents at home and serve them well, that is the first step in the journey to running the marathon called delivering population health to your community,” he says.

The AHA has a web resource offering comprehensive information on telemedicine and telehealth services. Find information on federal and state telehealth initiatives, research documenting telehealth value, AHA-member case studies showing telehealth in action and AHA TrendWatch reports on telehealth benefits to patients.