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The future (and present) of rural health care is telehealth

Expect remote surgeries within five years, Omaha doctor says
Posted at 6:41 PM, Sep 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-16 17:52:17-04

The 3 News Now Investigative Team is delving into rural health care in Nebraska in a multi-part series. The series profiles rural critical care facilities and looks into their struggles and triumphs. Last week, we focused on OB services.

While Dr. Brandon Essink watched his son's Bennington Middle School football game on Tuesday evening, he was also on call at several rural hospitals across the country.

He looked at medical charts on his phone from the stands of Plattsmouth's football field. He could have been on a video conference in an emergency situation nearly instantly.

"It's great being out here," Essink said. "Even if i get called now, and I miss 20, 30 minutes of the game, I can still get back out and watch the kid."

While vacationing in Brazil, he held sessions with his patients in the U.S.

"We’re told that by patients, 'I forgot that you weren’t standing here,'" he said.

In 2017, 76% of hospitals used telemedicine, according to the American Hospital Association. That's up from 35% in 2010.

Telemedicine doctors are especially helpful when a hospital lacks a particular specialist. That was the case for Carol Case, who battles several health issues, including losing half her foot due to an infection. She needs several specialists for the best possible health care.

"There were weeks where I might have four medical appointments in one week," Case said. "If I had to travel out of town for each one of those, I probably would have had to make choices on (which health issues) I would focus on."

For 11 years, Essink worked at Columbus Community Hospital.

"That's why I wanted to do (telemedicine)," he said, "so I can keep practicing in rural medicine. But I also wanted to help to prevent burn out, because I got burned out doing it."

He's licensed in Nebraska and other states. One moment, he could be assisting a patient in Georgia, then in Nebraska soon after.

"I can move the camera around," Essink said. "I can zoom right into their face. Very specific." He has a 360-degree view of the hospital room.

Within five years, expect long-distance surgeries, he said.

"Surgeons will be able to remotely do surgeries with ease," Essink said.

Telemedicine was a topic of discussion in the Nebraska Legislature earlier this year.

Nebraska State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said telemedicine has been very helpful in Nebraska in all areas expect one: medication abortion. State law doesn't allow it.

"That's something that a doctor can safely prescribe that you don't need to do in a doctor's office," she said. "You can take that at home."

Hunt said it would give women the opportunity to have personal conversations in the comfort of their home and avoid traveling across the state, which would delay the abortion.

"The more options we can give people for safe, effective care, which is telemedicine for abortion, the better," Hunt said.

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