The Louisiana Rural Health Information Exchange (LARHIX) has put Louisiana in the forefront for rural health care by connecting 22 rural hospitals, including Byrd Regional Hospital in Leesville, to the medical center in Shreveport, allowing patients to receive specialized health care without having to travel the distance or wait several months for an appointment with the use of Telemedicine.


The Louisiana Rural Health Information Exchange (LARHIX) has put Louisiana in the forefront for rural health care by connecting 22 rural hospitals, including Byrd Regional Hospital in Leesville, to the medical center in Shreveport, allowing patients to receive specialized health care without having to travel the distance or wait several months for an appointment with the use of Telemedicine.
This $50,000 per telemedicine machine connects local patients with out of area specialists through an internet web cam program and allows face-to-face interaction. With connected equipment such as stethoscopes, otoscopes and special derm cameras, the telemedicine machine can collect and transmit medical data in real time.
Byrd Regional Hospital has jumped on board and has been utilizing the telemedicine machine for about six months. Beth Westerchil, chief nursing officer at Byrd, said the program has been very successful so far, and many patients have been seen by specialists that are not available at Byrd.
After Hurricane Katrina unforgivingly demolished the state in 2006, leaving many hospitals and clinics either destroyed or over crowded, many of the rural hospitals in central Louisiana were becoming overloaded and chaotic with evacuees. Dr. Donald Hines, executive director of LARHIX, met with Linda Welch, president and CEO of the Rural Hospital Coalition, Inc. and John McDonald, the first chancellor and dean of LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport (LSUHSC-S), and decided to implement the telemedicine program in Louisiana in order to connect the rural hospitals with electronic medical records to exchange data freely.
Within the first year, Hines said, seven hospitals participated, and now there are 22 hospitals stretching across central Louisiana who use telemedicine. With this program, Hines said patients are able to be seen much quicker within about two to four weeks, whereas it might take three to four months to get an appointment with a specialist at LSUHSC-S. He also added that it decreases travel time and the cost for patients and their families.
Lisa Sirman, LSUHSC-S telemedicine coordinator, said that the program has significantly grown since first implemented in 2008. The first year, Sirman said they only saw about a handful of patients per week, but since then, they average around 130 consults a month.
"Right not, we probably see about eight to 10 patients a day," she said. "Just today, we've already seen patients from Lake Providence and Oak Grove for pulmonary and pediatrics."
Out of the 15 telemedicine services available, Sirman said cardiology, endocrinology, internal medicine, pulmonary and rheumatology are amongst the most common. Other services provided include diabetic foot, ENT, GI/Hepatology, hematology/oncology, hepatitis, infectious disease, medicine/pediatrics, nephrology, pediatrics (general and subspecialties) and plastic surgery.
The rural hospitals that are equipped with the telemedicine carts have video conferencing equipment that link to LSUHSC-S for a live consultation with a specialist. When a patient arrives to the hospital in their community, the nurse prepares them for the clinical visit, whether it is checking vital signs, current medication list, family history and other patient information, and then dials up to LSUHSC-S. The nurse stays in the room to assist the patient and to operate the devices. Once the consultation is complete, a medical report will be faxed to the hospital with 24 to 48 hours.
Next month, Hines said there will be five nursing homes in the state that will participate in telemedicine to help those who cannot travel. He also added that within the past three years, 18 students have gone through the internal medicine residency program using telemedicine.