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Telemedicine offers real-time review of ultrasounds for rural Montana women

BILLINGS – In a rural state like Montana, access to healthcare can mean traveling hundreds of miles.

In recent years, there has been an emphasis on telemedicine, connecting doctors to patients in rural communities via a video chat.

Recently, doctors at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings have started to use this technology to help moms-to-be get the most accurate picture of the unborn child’s health without needing to travel to see a specialist.

Dr. Roger Wallace, the Director of Medicine for Women’s Health and Maternal-Fetal medicine at St. Vincent, called it “Skype on steroids.” He is able to watch in real time as a woman at another hospital gets an ultrasound.

“This gives us the capability of being face-to-face with a patient as if they’re here with us,” said Wallace. “It changes everything in a rural area like this.”

Wallace is able to pick up on little clips and changes to identify any possible complications, or to just give mom the “all clear.”

“Most hospitals and most clinics have ultrasound capability, at least for basic screening,” said Wallace. “But sometimes there can be subtle indications of significant problems with the babies that, because of experience or volume, can be overlooked.”

On Monday, Wallace watched on as a patient at St. James Healthcare in Butte got her ultrasound. He had seen the baby before and confirmed everything was looking good.

In the case of a healthy and normal pregnancy, Wallace is less involved, as the professionals at St. James are more than capable of performing basic scans to monitor growth. But there are times when his expertise is needed to monitor or diagnose problems.

“The general recommendation is that if our capabilities are available that they should be utilized at a critical time in pregnancy,” said Wallace. “Usually about the middle of pregnancy to make sure that, to the best of our ability, there is no identifiable malformation or problem that baby could have that needs to be dealt with.”

Before they began to use this technology, images from the ultrasound could be sent to a specialist for review, but the real-time viewing allows doctors to watch as the baby moves throughout the scan which gives them a much more comprehensive picture of how the baby is doing.

Wallace said early detection of problems with the baby can be even more important in a rural state because complications could mean parents need to travel to deliver their babies.

“So the ability to identify that early and get a patient at a place where she delivers where those capabilities are there is important and sometimes it’s actually life-saving,” said Wallace.

St. Vincent offers this service to their partner hospitals in the state that have the telemedicine technology.  Wallace said they do still travel to some clinics to see patients in areas that don’t have this technology yet.

-Reported by Samantha Sullivan/MTN News

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