Yesterday marked an historic occasion for health care in Georgia. Representatives from Emory Healthcare, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia (BCBSGa) and the Georgia Insurance Commissioner's Office gathered at Emory Crawford Long Hospital to launch the Georgia telemedicine program. Soon, patients at almost 40 hospitals across the state will be able to gain access to care from many of the state's top specialists without spending all day traveling to Atlanta, Macon or Augusta.
According to State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the Georgia Rural Health Care Initiative was established through the Georgia Department of Insurance (DOI) to mitigate geographic disparities in health care delivery. It is funded by a $126.5 million pledge secured from WellPoint, the parent company of BCBSGa, when the DOI approved their merger with Anthem. While most of the pledge will provide debt financing for expansion and renovation of rural hospitals, an initial $11.5 million investment is being distributed in grants to ensure that every Georgia community is within a 30-minute drive of a telemedicine specialty site.
S. Wright Caughman, MD, director, The Emory Clinic, and professor and chair of the Department of Dermatology, Emory University School of Medicine, joined Commissioner Oxendine at yesterday's ribbon cutting. "We are launching something that is truly visionary," he explained at the telemedicine launch and demonstration. "This will revolutionize patient's access to specialty care throughout the state by linking rural Georgia to the academic health centers across the state."
At this morning's live demonstration of the telemedicine equipment, Suephy Chen, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine, examined a "lesion" on Marty Nall, an actor/patient at Crisp Regional Hospital in Cordele, Ga. Dr. Chen recommended that Ms. Nall's primary care physician biopsy the lesion to gain more information about the disease process involved and to monitor the lesion for any potential changes.
In December 2004, Commissioner Oxendine brought together representatives from BCBSGa and the state's academic medical centers to build the country's most comprehensive telemedicine network. BCBSGa's parent company, WellPoint, is a national leader in telemedicine and developed a similar telemedicine system in California.
Commissioner Oxendine is a native of metro Atlanta, and noted that he has always had access to some of the best specialty care in the world. He also understands that Georgians have different standards of care based upon where they live. He said he hopes telemedicine will help eliminate that disparity.
"It is hard to get specialists in places like Atlanta, Macon or Augusta to relocate to small towns around the state," Commissioner Oxendine said at yesterday's demonstration. "Telemedicine is a way that we can transport those specialists to those small towns throughout the state."
Telemedicine is a health care delivery model that applies high-speed telecommunications systems, computer technology and specialized medical cameras to examine, diagnose, treat and educate patients from a distance. For example, through a telemedicine encounter, a patient in Bainbridge, Georgia may seek medical treatment from one of Georgia's leading specialty hospitals without spending the time and money required to travel for an in-person appointment.
Emory is the state's largest and most comprehensive healthcare system and Georgia's premier provider of specialty healthcare services. Through this program, individuals throughout the state will be able to receive treatment from some of the country's top specialists without leaving their community.
"Emory has a strong history of service," says Dr. Caughman. "Telemedicine provides an excellent opportunity to serve all Georgians and improve the health and wellbeing of a state that has given us so much for the past 150 years."