The Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression at Emory University School of Medicine has launched a telepsychiatry program. This program uses videoconferencing technology to connect older adults living in rural communities with Emory psychiatrists.
The new endeavor is part of the telemedicine network announced in 2004 by Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John W. Oxendine. The telemedicine network delivers specialty health care services to patients in underserved rural communities. The service provided through the Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression at Emory is one of a number of telemedicine services Emory will put into place to better serve patients across the State of Georgia.
"Emory Healthcare's commitment to its patients is not confined to hospitals and clinics," says Michael M.E. Johns, MD, Emory executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, "The psychiatry outreach program that J.B. Fuqua funded with his gift to Emory in 1999 has been enhanced through the generosity of the State of Georgia and WellPoint. Now psychiatric patients who need to be seen have access to specialists at the Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression in real time."
When patients call to make an appointment for psychiatric counseling services at the Fuqua Center, they are given the option of using the telemedicine program. There are more than 30 sites at various locations throughout Georgia that are designated and equipped for telemedicine. Patients are assigned to the site that is closest to home.
"We have known for a long time that our elderly patients were struggling to make their appointments and sometimes discontinued treatment because of the distance," says William McDonald, MD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Fuqua Center for Late Life Depression.
"Since we began our program early in September, our patients have been delighted with the opportunity to 'see' their doctor without having to drive more than thirty minutes from home," says Dr. McDonald.
A nurse is at each program site to check vital signs before the patient is seated, and remains in the room until the session is completed. The patient and doctor are able to see and hear each other by way of a computer monitor and a special camera. Family members and the patient's general practitioner can also be present during the session.
"It is very important for us to actually see the patient," says Dr. McDonald. "You can tell a lot more about how patients are doing by their appearance and body language than you can determine from a phone conversation. It also can save patients the inconvenience of coming in person when the issue turns out to be something simple, such as adjusting a dosage.
"Initially, we were concerned that our more elderly patients might balk at participating in a treatment session via computer screen, but we were pleasantly surprised at how they embraced the technology and seem to be perfectly comfortable communicating long distance with our doctors and nurses," notes Dr. McDonald.
The telemedicine program was developed through the Georgia Department of Insurance 'Georgia Rural Health Care Initiative,' and private funding that resulted in a partnership with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Georgia and WellPoint.
The goal of the Georgia Telemedicine Program is to ensure that all Georgians are within 30 minutes of a program site linking them to any of the four specialty sites – Emory Healthcare, Piedmont Medical Center, the Medical College of Georgia and Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah.
Other Emory specialties anticipated to participate in the program include neurology and dermatology.