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Patients in Rural Areas Benefit From Telemedicine, Study Finds

May 29, 2012

As our country ages (and grows ever bigger), diabetes and other endocrine disorders, like thyroid disease and osteoporosis, are rising, particularly in rural areas. But virtual examining rooms may just be the answer for people with chronic diseases living far from doctors and hospitals.  

Diabetes affects 25.8 million people of all ages, or 8.3 percent of the U.S. population. But the scary fact is that though almost 19 million have been diagnosed with the disease, seven million other people are walking around with it, and don’t even know it.

So what, you say. Just take some insulin and you’ll be fine. Untreated – and even treated – diabetes can lead to kidney failure, heart disease, and in the most severe cases, blindness and amputation. What about those folks who don’t know they have the disease? Many of them live in rural areas far from doctors. But the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE), meeting this week at the  21st Annual Scientific and Clinical Congress, are stressing the benefits of telemedicine in the examination and treatment of patients located in remote, rural areas.

They studied 66 people with Type 2 diabetes via the Internet and home connections and almost 100 percent were satisfied with this type of exam.

During the study, a clinical endocrinologist located in an urban center was hooked up through video teleconference to patients in rural locations, allowing the doctor to visually inspect patients real-time “face-to-face,” according to a press release. Using video cameras, television monitors and the Internet to transmit video, audio and electronic records, a “virtual examination room” setting was created. A nurse in the remote location facilitated the communication between the doctor and the patient, while assisting with the physical examination.

Telemedicine allows patients to be treated remotely by doctors. Of course, if you’re really sick, you must see a doctor in person. But today you can be monitored for diabetes, heart conditions and vital signs at home through a computer and a telephone line, saving hospital stays and readmissions and reducing costs for everyone.

Diabetes is of particular concern in rural populations of the U.S., where its likelihood is approximately 17 percent higher than in urban centers, the AACE reports. Add to that the unavailability of medical specialists, especially endocrinologists, in rural areas, and you have a lot of people who may get sicker, and even die, because they just can’t get the care they need.

Telemedicine is the transfer of electronic medical data, such as high-resolution images, sound, video and patient records, to remote locations using telecommunications technology, to provide medical care or allow medical research to proceed.

The AACE study, set up to investigate the effectiveness of examining and treating patients with endocrine diseases through this method, also analyzed the ability of a telemedicine-based endocrine consultative service to improve outcomes for endocrine patients in rural communities.

“The ability to communicate directly with a patient is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately this is not always possible with patients in remote locations,” said Ebenezer Nyenwe, MD, FACE, lead researcher on this study, in a press release. “Bringing telemedicine technology into play creates a viable alternative and increases the likelihood of the implementation of a more successful treatment plan.”

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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