Call of the wild: teleradiology in Alaska

January 15, 2001

Teleradiology and telehealth, moving with glacial certainty beyond rural America to the higher latitudes, reached the frozen fringes of the Bering Straits in November when Norton Sound Health Corporation, a Native American health organization, signed an

Teleradiology and telehealth, moving with glacial certainty beyond rural America to the higher latitudes, reached the frozen fringes of the Bering Straits in November when Norton Sound Health Corporation, a Native American health organization, signed an agreement with a local communications company to provide telehealth services to communities in the region.

The system connects 15 remote villages to healthcare providers located in regional centers, such as Anchorage or Nome, where Alaskan radiologists tend to concentrate.

General Communications, an Alaskan integrated communications provider, said the five-year, $12 million contract provides state-of-the-art broadband services via satellite. The move advances the quality of rural healthcare, which in many small towns is provided by a health aide, whose training sometimes equals but rarely exceeds that of an emergency medical technician.

"People living in rural America should have the same access to quality healthcare and resources as those living in urban America," said Martin Cary, GCI vice president of broadband services. "Telehealth services will raise the quality and speed of healthcare in remote areas, and reduce overall costs associated with Medivacs and delayed treatments."

Prior to telehealth, air evacuation was often the only treatment option for a patient in small, remote villages in Alaska, two-thirds of which are not even connected by the state's road system.

"Say you have a pediatric patient diagnosed with an ear problem," said Steven Constantine, an Alaskan hospital administrator serving as program manager for GCI's telehealth project. "If the parents don't have to lease an airplane and fly the child from the village to a regional center in Nome or Kotzebue, or, when necessary, all the way to Anchorage or Seattle, the cost savings are phenomenal."

Leasing a Medivac Leer jet can cost up to $30,000, according to Constantine.

"Today, instead of transmitting the patient, the same village health aides can transmit images to urban specialists, giving the patient real-time professional treatment," he said.

In the past, when a medical problem required a diagnosis, the village health aide would describe the symptoms over a telephone line to a physician who might be hundreds of miles away.

"Now the health aides have equipment such as full motion video teleconferencing (VTC) units," Constantine said. "Physicians can see the patient. They've actually delivered babies over VTC."