Telemedicine helps remove barriers to health care
Terry Hargenrader needs to visit his doctor every couple of months.
For Hargenrader, 45, his crippling symptoms of early onset Parkinson's disease would make the nearly two-hour drive to Pittsburgh for a doctor's visit daunting.
Luckily, Hargenrader only has to travel about 20 minutes from his Freiburg, Clarion County, home to a neurologist's office at UPMC North in Venango County, where he logs into a computer and, with a nurse, is examined by his doctor in Oakland.
Hargenrader is one of a growing number of patients throughout the state using telemedicine as a means to receive medical care.
“I'm not demographically discriminated against because I live in a rural county,” Hargenrader said.
The time he saves in travel is invaluable, he said.
Patients and doctors say that time savings and the ability for big city doctors to see patients in rural areas led to telemedicine programs.
The use of telemedicine has increased in Pennsylvania since May, when Gov. Tom Corbett extended medical assistance benefits to low-income patients who use the online connections with doctors.
Since then, the state's Department of Public Welfare has provided benefits for 300 internal medicine, mental health and behavioral health patients, according to DPW spokeswoman Carey Miller.
“The department continues to explore opportunities to expand the use of telemedicine in the Medical Assistance Program to increase access to care and efficiency in the delivery of medical services,” Miller said.
UPMC doctors have used telemedicine for about three years, according to Dr. Lawrence Wechsler, chairman of neurology and vice president of telemedicine.
“Patients are fond of it. They are adjusting to it very easily,” Wechsler said. “Initially for the doctors, it takes some adjustment, but what we find is we get information we need to make diagnosis in many different ways.”
Wechsler believes the program should be expanded to include more specialities.
UPMC is one of few medical providers in the state to accept medical assistance telemedicine patients.
UPMC physician Andrew Watson said he has more than 400 patients who use telemedicine.
“It's an amazing opportunity to take medicine back to patients,” Watson said.
Other hospitals are phasing in such programs.
Excela Health in Greensburg provides online services for pediatric patients through links with Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
“(The) program began a year ago and patient volume varies from three to 10 per month,” said Excela spokeswoman Robin Jennings.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.