April 19, 2004

Doc to make tele-house calls          

By Tia Webster

Beginning in May, School of Medicine specialist Jeffrey Lennox will provide remote medical consultations to rural Georgia patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases and other infectious diseases.

A collaboration with Southeast Telehealth Partners (STP) will electronically link Lennox to five wellness centers located in Ware, Wayne, Toombs, Bulloch and Coffee counties. Patient rooms in the counties will be outfitted with specialized exam equipment and video conferencing units for telehealth consultations.

"There may be some initial hesitancy with using the video conferencing and telemedicine consults because people like the personal contact," Lennox said. "But when given the option, some would rather choose the telemedicine instead of traveling several hours for care."

Lennox, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases, also is medical director of HIV/AIDS programs at the Ponce de Leon Center, one of the largest and most comprehensive outpatient HIV treatment facilities in the country and a part of the Grady Health System. From his Atlanta office, he can examine skin lesions or rashes and look into ears and throats when medical personnel at the rural wellness center use specialized cameras. Electronic stethoscopes also let him monitor heart, lung and abdomen sounds.

"Telehealth providers can be used for second opinions on a diagnosis or to help choose the best course of therapy for a patient," Lennox said. "Because rural doctors practice in relative isolation, they don't have the ability to go next door and ask another highly trained physician."

Lennox will assist Claire Hicks, a family practice physician in Waycross who also serves as a district clinical care coordinator for the HIV Wellness Centers. Lennox and Hicks have built a working relationship through other consultation opportunities and referrals during the latter's 13 years in treating HIV patients in rural southeast Georgia. Hicks has worked with the STP for nearly 10 years, providing care as the HIV specialist for the Southeast Health Unit.

"Development of [new] medicines has allowed HIV to become a chronic disease. Because of that, there's a lot more hope and a lot less despair in treating it," Hicks said. "But that same development has its downside in that, both individually and as a nation, we have become complacent about the disease."

Lennox said his participation in the telehealth program will be beneficial because of the success of such programs in other specialties. For example, ultrasounds can be shown via computer to a radiologist or obstetrician who can help rural providers interpret results. Lennox also knows of trial psychiatrists providing Internet counseling to children so parents don't have to drive long distances for frequent sessions.

The participation of Emory physicians at Grady Hospital is part of the expansion of STP's clinical services. In 2003, the Ware County Health Department was awarded close to $250,000 in funding on behalf of STP, a consortium established in 1994 to improve rural access to health care via telemedicine.

The grant was awarded by the Office of the Advancement of Telehealth (OAT), a division of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The OAT coordinates telehealth activities for the HRSA and works to promote a wider adoption of advanced technologies in the provision of health care services and education.

STP has expanded its network from 11 to 16 counties while enhancing its clinical telemedicine services (such as the new partnership with Grady) and developing more comprehensive distance-learning services.