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Let the Tele-Doctoring Continue, Expand

From a health policy point of view, the star power was out in force at yesterday’s official inauguration of the California Telehealth Network.

Aneesh Chopra, national chief technology officer, was chatting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The head of health sciences and services for the UC system, Jack Stobo, was nodding at something said by Sharon Gillette, bureau chief for the FCC.

They were all out to announce the success and expansion of a telemedicine pilot project that has been running since 2007. With the help of $22 million from the FCC’s broadband initiative — one of the largest grants awarded by the agency — and another $3.6 million of corporate money pitched in by the California Emerging Technology Fund, the state officially launched its CTN agency yesterday.

“Today we are celebrating the future of medicine, that is telemedicine,” Schwarzenegger said. “We have had 25,000 video consultations [in the pilot project], and now we’ll be able to do that all over the state, and hopefully the nation.”

The plan is to use broadband to link physicians and patients at hundreds of hospitals and clinics in rural and underserved areas around California with the specialists at five UC hospitals.

“We are improving lives, and thereby saving lives,” Schwarzenegger said.

The high point of the presentation came with the demonstration of how telemedicine can work — with live check-ins from a patient and doctor in an Oroville hospital, a psychiatrist from UC-Irvine and a neurologist from West Sacramento. The patient’s mother explained how the psychiatrist was able to diagnose and suggest possible medications for her 4-year-old, which made a huge difference in their lives. The pediatrician from Oroville said that level of expertise was invaluable and normally unavailable in the rural Northern California area.

Tom Nesbitt, associate vice chancellor for strategic technologies and alliances at UC-Davis medical school, said high-resolution technology is especially important during emergencies, and showed some film clips of an actual emergency.

“This is a little bit of a raw video,” Nesbitt said. “There was a child in a motor vehicle accident, who was brought into hospital in Redding.”

Film clips showed the crunched metal of a solo vehicle rollover from two weeks ago. And another clip showed the view of the emergency room where physicians were trying to treat the child’s head trauma.

“You can see the doctor is panning to look at things in the room and you see, pretty dramatically, the fracture of the skull,” Nesbitt said.

And plainly audible on the clip was the consulting physician’s reaction to seeing the X-ray of the skull: “Look at that. There’s no penetration of the dura, that’s great.”

The next clip was the follow-up appointment, where the child is doing well and the consulting physician’s voice said, “I can see she’s still a little puffy right there, and that’s going to be better, too.”

It was a touching moment. And when CTN Executive Director Eric Brown took the dais to wrap up the announcement, he offered the day’s moment of spontaneity.

“I’ll tell you, it’s not about bits and bytes and numbers on a page when you see the people who are helped,” Brown said. “And that right there is why I come to work every day.”

Note: An earlier version of this post included an inaccurate title for Tom Nesbitt. This version is correct.


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