Broadband Innovations, Part 4: The Doctor Isn't In but Can Still See You

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Prison Saved My Life

Jorge Martinez uses telehealth services from prison.
Jorge Martinez had lost 145 pounds for no reason that he could pinpoint. He was always tired, but didn't suspect that something was seriously wrong. It was not until Martinez was incarcerated at Coyote Ridge for a narcotics crime that he found out that he was a diabetic.

"Prison saved my life. The way I was eating and drinking, I wouldn't have lasted long," says Martinez, who also says he has been able to turn his health around through hard work and guidance from regular consultations via the telehealth network.

By exercising, Martinez has been able to decrease his insulin dependency by more than half. Through diabetes education in a group over the network, he has also learned how to care for his body and skin. Next he hopes to have a teleconsult with a dietician to work out a meal plan.

Diane Benfield, the dietician at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, saves 3 hours of travel per visit due to remote consultations with the inmates at Coyote Ridge. She says this setup allows her to schedule many more appointments with prisoners.

"The inmates are positive and don't seem to mind not meeting in person," she says. "I'd love to see the whole statewide system connected."

How Telehealth Works

In 2003, the TelePharmacy service also became available on the network. It enables nurses in 12 remote hospital sites to access approved prescription medicine through a secure vending machine.

Medication orders transmit via the network from rural hospitals to a pharmacist at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. The pharmacist reviews the prescription and confirms it on the computer. After swiping an identification card and typing in a password, the nurse at the remote site can take out the drug from the dispenser.

"Many rural communities may have a pharmacist who comes by twice a week, but they can't afford or aren't able to recruit someone full-time," says Fred W. Hoefler, manager of the TelePharmacy program at Sacred Heart.

Ronda Golladay has worked as a nurse for 30 years. Her current employer, the Othello Community Hospital, participates in the TelePharmacy program to provide pharmacy service 24/7. Under its guidelines, nursing staff must be monitored via videoconferencing when performing activities such as restocking the medicine dispenser.

"People are always apprehensive about letting other people watch them in a Big Brother way. We've tried to overcome that by educating them well in how to use the equipment," says Brian G. Hoots, telehealth analyst at Northwest TeleHealth.

In 2007, nearly 300,000 prescription orders went through the system, a number expected to increase as the TelePharmacy program adds two more sites.

Kajsa Linnarsson
Photograph: Robert Cardin
(Series author Kajsa Linnarsson is a visiting reporter covering global developments in broadband for PC World. A graduate of Stanford University's Innovation Journalism program, she lives in Hudiksvall, Sweden, in a region known as Fiber Optic Valley for its concentration of cutting-edge communication technology companies.)

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