News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 11, 2012

Parke native plays key role in rural health advances

Telehealth platform being instituted around Midwest, nation

TERRE HAUTE — Drawing on her rural background, Stephanie Laws understands the barriers many people face when seeking medical care.

Whether its fuel costs, distance to travel, or limited income, getting from a rural community to a doctor’s appointment in a distant city can be a challenge that drains patients and their families, both economically and emotionally.

Her own experience growing up in Bloomingdale in rural Parke County helped guide Laws as she worked with medical colleagues to advance the use of telemedicine to fill service gaps and improve the overall quality of health care services through technology.

Now, her guidance in developing the Wabash Valley Rural Telehealth Network has earned her statewide recognition as a 2012 recipient of an Indiana Premier Health Achievement Award presented by the Indiana Public Health Foundation.

Laws was honored last week at The Westin hotel in Indianapolis with an award in the field of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. Her telehealth platform is now being instituted around the Midwest and the nation.

“I was so humbled and really astonished that I was nominated for such and award,” Laws told the Tribune-Star recently. “And to win the award — wow!”

Laws, a 1992 graduate of Rockville High School, had originally planned to pursue a degree in early childhood education. But after two years at Indiana State University, she changed her career path to nursing. By 1997, she was working at the hospital in Clinton, and in 1998 she began working for Union Hospital Health Group to manage emergency, medical-surgical, ambulatory surgery and intensive care departments at Union Hospital Clinton.

In 2008, a position came open at the Richard G. Lugar Center for Rural Health at Union Hospital, and Laws made the move to be manager of the telehealth and innovative technologies department. This past September, she was also named executive director of the Rural Health Innovation Collaborative which has the goal of improving and expanding health care education, especially for rural providers, while also developing health care-related jobs and revitalizing the Terre Haute neighborhood that lies between Union Hospital and the ISU campus.

Telemedicine allows interaction between health care providers and patients in different locations. For instance, a patient in Sullivan who needs to see a cardiologist in Terre Haute does not need to make the long drive north, but instead can be seen at a Sullivan office that has a video link to the doctor in Terre Haute. The video conference allows the cardiologist to speak with the patient and the attending health care provider, and live data from the patient — heart tones, breath sounds and other patient assessment — can be transmitted to the specialist.

“It saves a lot of travel time and expense for both the patient and the specialist,” Laws said. “For instance, if a doctor has to drive an hour to a remote area to see one patient, spends and hour with that patient and the necessary paperwork, and then has to spend an hour on the return trip, that is three hours for only one patient,” she said.

The same time and travel applies to a patient, who may not be feeling well enough to make a long journey, or have someone available to provide transportation for the journey.

Telemedicine also eliminates distance for health care providers needing training, continuing education, and collaborative meetings.

Laws, who has recently had to take time off from work to tend to her young son after he broke his arm, said she has still been in contact with her office through a telemedicine link to her home.

The Wabash Valley Rural Telehealth Network was founded by the Lugar Center in 2010 to provide a short-term sustainability plan for a small group of health care organizations in west central Indiana using live video-interactive telemedicine services. Later that year, the center received a $640,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources Services Administration to formalize and subsidize the WVRTN for three more years.

Since then, the Lugar Center has coordinated multiple independent entities to expand access to telemedicine technologies.

Laws said the support of the Union Hospital administration has been critical in the success of the telemarketing program.

“It speaks very highly of Union Hospital administration to support the Lugar Center for Rural Health, by allowing us to think creatively to access the rural communities and provide needed services,” she said. “There is an altruistic approach to it.”

For more information about the WVRTN’s projects and how telemedicine works, go to the website at www.ruraltelenet.org.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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