Doctor Dilemma: A new hope

Published On: Dec 24 2013 04:07:28 PM CST   Updated On: Nov 20 2013 10:50:47 PM CST

Medical experts have done extensive research on the doctor shortage in rural America, and believe the problem won’t get any better in the next 50 years.

So some hospital leads are looking for new ways to treat patients in the smallest communities in Kansas.

The desperate need for doctors in rural parts of Kansas has some hospital leads replacing medical professionals with machinery.

“It’s a huge shortage,” said James Kallail, Associate Chair of Research at the KU School of Medicine. “It's been around for years and the federal government projects … the shortages won't go away in the next 50 years."

Hamilton County Hospital in Syracuse went nearly eight years without a doctor, forcing the people who live there to travel miles for health care.

"It was a challenge if you had a sudden illness, infection, or severe cold,” said resident Carol Roberts. “Anything like that."

But hospital CEO Bryan Coffey found a way around the chronic physician shortage: Tele-medicine in the form of a robot.

"This is a complex piece of equipment,” said Coffey, demonstrating the machines, “that actually has a 12-fold magnification so the doctor can look at lesions on the skin better than with his own eyes."

Roberts said the addition of the robot is “a big relief.”

“I feel like it's going to be a great advantage to this hospital and to this area,” she said.

Coffey said the robot gives his hospital the opportunity to see patients dealing with countless different conditions. Anyone working at the hospital can maneuver the robot – and the attached camera gets an up-close view of the patient.

“"This is going to shatter the box around that whole paradigm,” Coffey said. “Because this is going to allow the physician to be sitting in Starbucks, get a call, open up his tablet, log in, and see a patient in the ER."

Which Coffey said will be especially vital when people suffering from a stroke come to his hospital.

"In an neurological situation, time is of the essence,” Coffey said. “So this will save a lot of brain damage."

In the past, those patients would be stabilized and shipped by ambulance or medical helicopter to a hospital with more resources.

The robot keeps them in Syracuse.

“It will allow patients to come here - 10 minute, 20 minute drive here - and be seen immediately by a neurologist,” Coffey said. “That's unheard of in rural America."

Roberts said she’s especially excited about the tele-medicine going online.

“It won't just help the citizens of Hamilton County,” she said, “it will help citizens in western Kansas."

Coffey believes tele-medicine will not only save lives, but save hundreds of communities across the state that are desperate for medical care – like his hospital once was.

“That little hospital - that the doors were going to close - through tele-medicine and some providers coming on board, have set the standard of care that can be a model for all of America and all of the rural hospitals,” he said.

Coffey said the robot is a bargain. He said just one patient a month -  treated at Hamilton County Hospital instead of being shipped out – will pay for the tele-medicine. If a doctor finds that a patient needs further medical attention, they will still be taken to a hospital with more resources.

But Coffey said that was only be half the time now – and the robot saves many people the trip by diagnosing the problem in Hamilton County.