SIU plans major expansion of telehealth services

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LINCOLN -- From his family’s dining room table in Lincoln — through his parents’ webcam-enabled laptop on a home WiFi network — 5-year-old David Heady worked to expand his vocabulary and improve his pronunciation Monday with the help of a therapist sitting in her office in Springfield.
“We will peel the banana before we slice it,” David said carefully and precisely during an exercise with his mother, Cheryl, as the two worked together to make a tasty snack. As they worked, they bantered with the person on the other end of the webcam, Caroline Montgomery, a deaf-education specialist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
“Great vocabulary and great job,” Montgomery told the boy through the computer speaker.
Montgomery is one of the more than 100 SIU professionals who have been trained to carry out what is expected to be a massive expansion of SIU’s “telehealth” services over the next two years.
With about $300,000 in startup costs already paid by the medical school and its physician group, SIU HealthCare, since 2014, SIU Telehealth uses secure networks and high-quality video and audio to virtually erase the distances separating residents of central and southern Illinois from specialists in Springfield who are eager to serve them.
“It’s really about improving access,” said Nina Antoniotti, SIU executive director of TeleHealth and Clinical Outreach. “The issue is people don’t want to travel for care.”
Antoniotti, a nationally respected authority on telehealth, was recruited by SIU from the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, where she grew the telehealth program from two sites and 20 patients in 1998 to 75 sites and 5,000 patients by the time she left.
Illinois is behind many states when it comes to making health care more accessible to rural areas through telemedicine, Antoniotti said.
SIU, the primary provider of telehealth services in downstate Illinois, has placed equipment in 11 communities, ranging from Benton's Franklin Hospital and Carthage's Memorial Hospital to Havana's Mason District Hospital, Pittsfield's Illini Community Hospital and Carlinville Area Hospitalin Carlinville.
Eight locations in Decatur take advantage of SIU Telehealth services, including Decatur Memorial Hospital’s nursery, where premature babies are evaluated for the need to be transferred to a neonatal intensive care unit in Springfield or elsewhere.
Antoniotti expects to have about 50 telehealth sites up and running by July 2017.
As more patients and primary care doctors learn about telehealth options, she said, the 20 to 40 patients who will be served this month probably will increase to 400 or 500 monthly by the end of 2016. In another year, that total could reach 1,000 or more patients, she said. 

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