Vail Daily health feature: Technology helps local health professionals connect with patients | VailDaily.com

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Vail Daily health feature: Technology helps local health professionals connect with patients

At this point, technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of our daily lives, from the iPhone alarms that wake us up in the morning, the GPS systems we use when driving to work and the self-check machine at the grocery store that enables us to buy food with the simple swipe of our debit cards, no paper receipt needed. With many of us now texting instead of calling and using FaceTime instead of seeing one another face to face, it's easy to see in-person communication as a dying art. But what if all this digital dialog was a good thing? In the health sector, some are using technology to improve communication between physicians and patients and even save lives.

REDUCING DIAGNOSIS DELAY

Telemedicine, also known as telehealth, is a broad term referring to sharing medical information electronically from one place to another. What this means in a real world sense is using teleconferencing so that a doctor can treat a patient without having to be in the same room or even in the same hospital. According to the American Telemedicine Association, telemedicine is a fast-growing aspect of the health care industry, and currently there are 200 telemedicine networks in the U.S. While some might enjoy being tucked away here in the mountains, the remoteness of the Vail Valley can at times be limiting when it comes to health care. It may only be a two-hour drive down to Denver to see a specialist, but especially in the winter, many of us know just how difficult that trip can be.

Dr. Jenna Rosenthal, pediatric hospitalist at Vail Valley Medical Center, said VVMC simply does not have the patient volume to justify having a pediatric cardiologist on staff at all times. In place of this is the Remote Presence Lite, or RP Lite for short, to beam in a pediatric cardiologist when needed. If you're imagining a robot with a TV screen for a face, you're spot on. Rosenthal said sometimes she even calls the RP Lite "WALL-E," the robot from the movie of the same name. The RP Lite enables a pediatric cardiologist from Children's Hospital Colorado or the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children to read a newborn's echocardiogram in real-time and speak to the parents in the room. Rosenthal said the RP Lite not only reduces the delay in diagnosis but also gives parents more peace of mind.

"With the RP Lite, they (the parents) can see the cardiologist in action and they can speak directly to the cardiologist that's diagnosing their baby," Rosenthal said. "They get an immediate response and it allows the cardiologist on the other end to visualize the baby, the monitor, the echo and use (these) as a visual aid when trying to educate the parents."

'VIRTUAL' EYE CONTACT

The phrase "there's something wrong with your baby" is not something any parent wants to hear. Before implementing the RP Lite in her practice two years ago, Rosenthal said both she and the parents would have to wait much longer for word from the pediatric cardiologist at another hospital.

"In some cases, it could save the life of your baby," Rosenthal said. "You always want to take care of a pathologic congenital heart defect quickly."

The idea of wheeling a robot in and saying, "Here's your doctor," might seem silly, but Rosenthal said even "virtual" eye contact helps both the patient and physician feel more at ease.

"There are so many aspects to medicine, and making the correct diagnosis is one of them," Rosenthal said. "There's (also) a huge human component to it, and you want the patient to feel that they're in good hands and comfortable with their care. Allowing them to speak directly to a specialist gives them more confidence in the diagnosis and assures them."

COUNSELING VIA COMPUTERS

Telemedicine devices like the RP Lite aren't the only ways health professionals are using technology to communicate with their patients. Licensed psychologist Dr. Jill Squyres, who practices in both Colorado and Texas, has an office in Eagle and is on the faculty of the Telemental Health Institute in San Diego, California. As self-proclaimed "techie," Squyres combined her interest in computers with her therapy practice when she started offering online-based counseling four years ago.

Squyres initially started offering online-based counseling when she lived in San Antonio and had a client with health issues who had difficulty getting around in the heat. Now about one-fourth to one-fifth of her client base is online-only. Squyres said the main reason people opt for online counseling is simply because it's easier.

"(Having) a psychotherapy session online is as convenient as a phone call," Squyres said. "Some people like the separation of their life, coming into the office. Other people, they're busy and they have children, a lot of it is convenience and access, having more choices in terms of the psychotherapy they can choose. Travel and distance (are also) factors."

Squyres admits that with an online session there are technical difficulties "at least half the time," and that it all depends on the other person's Internet connection and their comfort with technology. Squyres said online-based counseling not only gives people more options when selecting a therapist, but it also expands access to care for those needing a specialist. Squyres has specialty training in health psychology, physical rehabilitation and working with health care providers. For those who work in the health care field or live in a small town, online-based counseling can provide more privacy.

"Sometimes people aren't comfortable being seen coming into a psychotherapists office," Squyres said. "(For health care professionals), they may not want to see a psychotherapist who's a part of their own medical community."

THE FUTURE OF TELEMEDICINE

Squyres said online-based counseling is more similar to in-person counseling than not. There is, however, one critical difference.

"The hardest thing is I can't hand somebody a tissue when they're crying," Squyres said, laughing a bit. "I actually feel closer to the person (online). I have a large 27-inch Mac and when I'm in front of my camera, I can see that person more closely and they can see me more closely than when they're sitting across the room."

In the future, Squyres expects her practice to be a 50-50 split between online-based and in-person counseling. She's even working with a software developer to create an app specifically for private counseling sessions. With some expressing fears that technology is interfering with our ability to form real, human connections, those at the forefront of the telemedicine trend see it differently.

"When you're suffering and you need help to solve your problems, nothing compares to the emotional connection between a therapist and the client," Squyres said. "I don't see that diminished in any way by an online session."

When it comes to telemedicine, computers and robots could be just the beginning.

"As a kid I never thought you would walk around and drive your car while talking on the telephone," Rosenthal said. "In my lifetime, with all the advances in technology, the possibilities are endless for the future. I think everything is balance. You don't want to completely replace the doctor because there's a lot to be said for hands-on medicine. I definitely feel like technology is going to help advance what we're going to be able to do, but I don't think it will ever replace a human physician."

Technology may never take the place of a real doctor, but if it cuts down on traveling along our sometimes treacherous roads, then more locals might be finding themselves saying, "I'm here for my appointment with WALL-E."