Making High-tech Health Care Available to Rural America

December 9, 2011

Steven Ward, 64, of Bella Vista, Ark., was

diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF) two years ago. Today, he’s part of Mercy’s medical home project. He uses a tele-home monitoring machine to monitor

his weight and blood pressure daily. The information is automatically sent via phone line to his physician, taking only three minutes. If any reading is outside normal parameters, his doctor is able to intervene immediately and keep his CHF under control.

For the second time in a year, the USDA awarded Mercy a $500,000 telemedicine grant which will ultimately provide greater access to health care in some of Mercy’s most rural communities in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

“Almost half of Mercy’s 30 hospitals across our four states are in extremely rural communities, and these residents don’t have access to the level of care found in larger cities,” said Tim Smith, M.D., vice president of research for Mercy’s Center for Innovative Care (CIC). “This grant will allow us to hardwire these facilities with telemedicine technology so we can provide round-the-clock emergency coverage, access to hundreds of Mercy medical specialists and even greater access to primary care.”

The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant is specifically designed to meet the educational and health care needs of rural America. The grant targets needs in 12 Mercy hospitals in towns with populations under 5,000 residents: Berryville, Ozark, Paris and Waldron, Ark.; Columbus, Kans.; Cassville and Mountain View, Mo.; Healdton, Kingfisher, Marietta, Sulphur and Tishomingo, Okla.

“If you have lung disease and you live in Tishomingo, Okla., you have to travel 136 miles to Oklahoma City or 121 miles to Dallas to see a pulmonologist,” said Dr. Smith. “Specialized physicians live and practice in highly populated areas. Tishomingo doesn’t have the luxury or the resources to provide this level of care. But with the use of high-tech, powerful cameras providing live video, a Tishomingo resident can go down the street to Mercy Hospital Tishomingo and be seen virtually by a pulmonologist.”

Besides pulmonology, patients in rural areas will have greater access to other medical specialties including: stroke, cardiology, neurology, neonatology, psychiatry, ophthalmology, radiology, dermatology and pathology. All patient rooms will be hardwired so an electronic cart with a two-way audio-video system can be rolled into any room at a moment’s notice to provide care previously unavailable onsite.

“This means 24/7 access to specialty care unlike anything these communities have seen before,” said Chris Veremakis, M.D., medical director of Mercy’s CIC and telemedicine services.

Earlier this year, the USDA awarded Mercy a $495,926 USDA telemedicine grant for a three-year tele-home project that will provide medical care to 900 people in some of the nation’s most hard-to-reach rural areas.

Targeting patients with the most chronic ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and respiratory disease, Mercy’s first grant provides monitoring devices so patients can electronically transmit results directly to their physician from home via computer or telephone line. Implementation is currently under way.

Mercy’s Center for Innovative Care, the driver behind the telemedicine projects, creatively combines people and technology to extend Mercy’s reach and services well beyond the walls of doctors’ offices, hospital campuses and other traditional facilities. By studying the impact of new approaches and then putting new technologies to the test, Mercy’s CIC ultimately hopes to provide better care through more convenient and lower-cost locations.

Mercy is the eighth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 30 hospitals, more than 200 outpatient facilities, 38,000 co-workers and 1,500 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit

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