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‘Telehealth’ could revolutionize global medical treatment

WASHINGTON – For many New Mexicans and others living in rural parts of the world, a visit to the doctor can be a daunting experience requiring expensive travel over vast distances.

But advancements in technology could help change that, revolutionizing not only a routine doctor visit but the entire practice of medicine around the world.

Dale Alverson, medical director of medical director of the Center for Telehealth and Cybermedicine Research at UNM, will discuss the future of “telehealth” and its impact on global medical practices Sunday, Sept. 14, as part of the Albuquerque International Association’s six-part lecture series on global health trends.

In a Journal interview, Alverson said that the U.S. is in a period of unprecedented health-care transformation and that technology presents opportunities to provide improved health care for everyone, including those in underserved and developing countries.

Technology can provide greater access to clinical service, consultation, education and training, health-systems development, epidemiology and research, he said.

“It enhances our ability in New Mexico to provide better access to health care, but it also provides systems and networks to do it nationally and internationally,” Alverson said. “We’re in a global community, and now we can use technology in a meaningful way to meet the needs of a variety of different populations and countries.

“It’s becoming more realistic because wireless networks are better and the technology itself is getting much less expensive,” Alverson said.

Perhaps the most obvious way technology can help improve the delivery of health care is through electronic communication, such as videoconferencing.

In some cases, a doctor would be able to diagnose a patient via televised images offered by Skype and other videoconferencing services.

“It has enhanced our ability to do (remote medical work), not only in New Mexico but around the world,” Alverson said. “Technology can provide easier access to health-care services for the consumer so they don’t have to get into a car and drive to a clinic or a doctor’s office.”

Alverson said another way technology is helping to reduce spiraling costs is by eliminating – at least in some cases – the need for expensive transport of people who suffer head injuries.

Alverson said doctors at the University of New Mexico conducted an experiment in which rural hospitals emailed CT scans to trauma centers in Albuquerque.

Forty-four percent of the time, doctors at the trauma center were able to determine that patients did not need to be transported and could be treated in their own communities instead.

The average cost of such a transport is about $20,000, he said.

“Most people are using technology to enhance their ability to communicate, and we can do the same thing with health care,” Alverson said. “Technology can be part of the solution.”