Beginning in May, Emory School of Medicine specialist Jeffrey L. Lennox, MD, will provide medical consultations to rural Georgia patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and other infectious diseases. The collaboration with Southeast Telehealth Partners (STP) electronically links Dr. Lennox to five wellness centers located in Ware, Wayne, Toombs, Bulloch and Coffee counties. Patient rooms in the counties will be outfitted with specialized exam equipment and video conferencing units for telehealth consultations.
"There may be some initial hesitancy with using the video conferencing and telemedicine consults because people like the personal contact," Dr. Lennox says. "But when given the option, some would rather choose the telemedicine instead of traveling several hours for care."
Dr. Lennox, professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine, division of infectious diseases, is also the medical director of HIV/AIDS programs at the Ponce de Leon Center, one of the largest and most comprehensive outpatient HIV treatment facilities in the country and a part of the Grady Health System. From his Atlanta office, he can examine skin lesions or rashes and look into ears and throats when medical personnel at the rural wellness center use specialized cameras. Electronic stethoscopes also let him monitor heart, lung and abdomen sounds.
"Telehealth providers can be used for a second opinion on a diagnosis or to help choose the best course of therapy for a patient," Dr. Lennox adds. "Because rural doctors are practicing in relative isolation, they don't have the ability to go next door and ask another highly-trained physician."
Dr. Lennox will assist Claire Hicks, MD, a family practice physician in Waycross who also serves as a district clinical care coordinator for the HIV Wellness Centers. Drs. Lennox and Hicks have built a working relationship through other consultation opportunities and referrals during Dr. Hicks' 13 years in treating HIV patients in rural southeast Georgia. She has worked with the STP for nearly 10 years, providing care as the HIV specialist for the Southeast Health Unit.
"The development of medicines have allowed HIV to become a chronic disease. Because of that, there's a lot more hope and a lot less despair in treating the disease," Dr. Hicks says. "But that same development has its downside in that both individually and as a nation we have become complacent about the disease."
Dr. Lennox believes his participation in the telehealth program will be beneficial since he's learned of success with the use of telehealth consults in other specialties. For example, ultrasounds can be shown via computer to a radiologist or obstetrician who can help rural providers interpret results. He also knows of trial psychiatrists providing Internet counseling to children so parents don't have to drive long distances for frequent sessions.
The participation of Emory physicians at Grady Memorial Hospital is part of the expansion of clinical services of the Southeast Telehealth Partners (STP). In 2003, the Ware County Health Department was awarded close to $250,000 in funding on behalf of the STP, a consortium established in 1994 to improve rural access to health care via telemedicine. The grant was awarded by the Office of the Advancement of Telehealth (OAT), a division of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The OAT coordinates the telehealth activities for the HRSA and works to promote a wider adoption of advanced technologies in the provision of health care services and education. The STP was able to expand their network from 11 counties to serving 16 counties. They also increased their clinical telemedicine services, such as seeking partnership with Grady Memorial Hospital, and developed more comprehensive distance learning services.