Healing from a Distance

Friday, Jul 21 2017

Telemedicine Dr. Cuneo

Through virtual health, Children’s Hospital Colorado is breaking down geographic barriers and improving access to care

Dr. Bettina Cuneo peers intently at an ultrasound image. Her patient, a pregnant mother from Grand Junction, Colo., is visibly nervous. Last week, at her 20-week ultrasound, the woman learned that her baby had a suspected heart defect. She was referred to Dr. Cuneo, a renowned fetal cardiologist at the Colorado Fetal Care Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado, for further evaluation.

But this is no ordinary doctor’s appointment. Dr. Cuneo is viewing real-time ultrasound images from her clinic in Aurora, Colo., while her patient is sitting with an ultrasound technician in Grand Junction, 250 miles away. Using video conferencing technologies, Dr. Cuneo can see live imaging of the baby while an ultrasound technician on the other end of the camera performs the exam.

This Children’s Colorado “virtual clinic” for fetal heart anomalies has saved expectant mothers hundreds of hours of driving time to see a specialist—not to mention countless hours of worry. It’s just one of the many ways that Children’s Colorado is transforming the way it delivers care using groundbreaking telehealth technologies.

After discussing the patient’s history and concerns through the video conference line, Dr. Cuneo directs the ultrasound technician in Grand Junction to zoom in on a specific area of the baby’s heart. Dr. Cuneo adjusts the volume on her monitor, allowing her to hear the baby’s heartbeat as clearly as if she were sitting right next to the patient. She closes her eyes and listens closely, then looks directly into the video camera.

“Your baby is going to be fine,” says Dr. Cuneo.

Through the image on her video screen, Dr. Cuneo can see tears of relief in the mother’s eyes.

Improving Access

Telehealth allows caregivers to provide health care remotely using telecommunications technology. It encompasses a wide range of digital tools and programs that support long-distance clinical care and health education. Across the world, these technologies are improving access to health care by reaching patients in their homes, schools, workplaces and local primary care practices.  More than half of U.S. hospitals now have a telehealth program, according to the American Telemedicine Association. 

“I think of telehealth as healing from a distance,” said Dr. Cuneo. “I love that I can help to reassure someone without making them drive all the way across the Continental Divide.”

The growth in telehealth comes at a time when millions of Americans face challenges accessing health care. Many rural areas lack child and maternal health providers. Yet studies show that kids treated by caregivers with pediatric training and experience have far better health care outcomes. Moreover, research indicates that children and pregnant mothers who receive treatment closer to home fare better than those who have to travel long distances.

Recognizing these challenges, Children’s Colorado has launched new telehealth programs that allow families throughout the world to access our pediatric experts from their local communities. Whether it’s a virtual consultation with a pediatric specialist, a smartphone app that encourages healthy behaviors, or a technology that allows a doctor to track a child’s vital signs from hundreds of miles away, families living anywhere now have unprecedented access to the expertise of one of the nation’s best pediatric hospitals.

“Improving access is one of the greatest benefits of telemedicine,” explains Fred Thomas, Ph.D., director of telehealth at Children’s Colorado. “We’re also trying to reduce costs and barriers to receiving care while also improving outcomes.”

Philanthropy is Critical

The upfront costs required to develop a new virtual health program and invest in technology can be significant, yet traditional reimbursement and funding models often don’t support telehealth programs — at least not until they are well-established.

“The proof of concept has to happen first, and that’s where philanthropy is absolutely critical,” said  Dr. Thomas.

Philanthropic investment has played a significant role in establishing and maintaining these programs at Children’s Colorado, where donor support is impacting thousands of lives through telehealth.

One example is a telehealth partnership with a pediatric practice in Durango, Colo. Funded by philanthropy, the program allows Durango-area children who require more complex care to virtually access a pediatric specialist at Children’s Colorado. Using digital otoscopes and stethoscopes, Children’s Colorado specialists can conduct full exams on patients hundreds of miles away. 

The program has been a game changer for children living with chronic health conditions.

“It can be extraordinarily burdensome for these children to access the pediatric specialty care they require,” said Dr. Thomas, noting that rural families often spend days commuting to and from Children’s Colorado, missing work and school and incurring costly travel expenses. “With telehealth, patients can go right down the road to see their sub-specialist instead of coming to Denver.”

Children's Colorado continues to develop new partnerships with rural providers across the region, allowing them to more easily consult with our expert sub-specialists on complex pediatric health issues.

“We're the only organization in the country that's doing the array of what we're doing,” said Dr. Thomas.

Because telehealth isn’t limited by geography, the opportunities for helping children and families are virtually boundless. 

“Telehealth is all about innovation and stretching the limits of what’s possible,” said Dr. Thomas. “I think this is one of the most life-altering things we do at Children’s Colorado.”

Read more about how telehealth kept one mother close to home.

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