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In a Competitive Market, Telehealth Can Be a Valuable Commodity

When Penn State Health lost of four of its five neurologists at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, UPMC seized on the opportunity, announcing that a new telehealth program at UPMC Pinnacle could help patients needing specialist services.

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By Eric Wicklund

- UPMC is using its telehealth and telemedicine network to attract new patients in central Pennsylvania – possibly to the detriment of one of its biggest competitors.

The Pittsburgh-based health system recently announced an expansion of its teleneurology platform to serve residents in and around Harrisburg through its UPMC Pinnacle location.

The new program, which opened this month, enables specialists at the UPMC campus in Pittsburgh to treat Pinnacle patients dealing with stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS) and other acute neurology conditions through virtual visits.

“Without leaving the area, this is a unique opportunity for our neurology patients to get ongoing care from additional neurologists with experience ranging from life-saving intervention for severe brain trauma to skillful management of neurological illnesses,” Rhunelle C. Murray, MD, MH.A, UPMC Pinnacle’s medical director for neurology, said in a May 15 press release. “We look forward to seeing and helping new patients in central Pennsylvania.”

The release notes that this program “will allow UPMC Pinnacle to offer its neurology services to more patients, including patients with multiple sclerosis who are seeking a new provider.”

READ MORE: Community Health Centers Use Telehealth to Boost Specialty Consults

That’s likely good news to the more than 2,100 patients dealing with MS in the area who have been seeking treatment at Penn State Health’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Last month, the hospital notified those patients that two of its MS neurologists had retired and two more were moving away, leaving the health system with just one neurologist who could treat MS patients.

Penn State Health sent letters to those patients advising them “to seek alternate care options” until it could hire more neurologists, according to Lancaster Online. The hospital then quickly amended that notice to say its patients need only seek temporary assistance with treatment.

"We should have assured you that despite these staffing challenges, our practice remains open to you—whether you are an MS patient or are being seen for some other neurological concern,” the health system said in a statement. “Our staff is committed to working with you and your family to make sure your care needs are met. In our haste to get you this information about the care we provide to you, we neglected our larger role of caring for you. For that, we want to say we are sorry. And we want to tell you what we are doing to make it right.”

The health system then said it had organized a team to help patients with their "medication monitoring and management, related lab or imaging tests and urgent appointments for flare-ups of their illness."

But in a region with multiple health systems, it didn’t take long for another provider to seize the opportunity.

READ MORE: The Benefits and Challenges of Telehealth for Specialists

UPMC Pinnacle, with a telemedicine program in place since 2012, let it be known that it could take on extra patients with “a wide range of neurological disorders, including brain and spinal cord traumas, chronic headaches and migraines, dementia, stroke, movement disorders, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and more.”

“UPMC Neurology specialists will examine the patient via two-way cameras and digital monitoring tools, and share test results and medical records with an advanced practice clinician in the room with the patient,” the press release pointed out. “In this interactive environment, patients get to see and talk to the doctors just as if they were in the same room.”

“Offering access to the most advanced neurology care through telemedicine reflects UPMC’s commitment to bringing world-class care to all of the communities we serve,” Lawrence Wechsler, MD, UPMC’s vice president of telemedicine services, and Henry B. Higman, professor and chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences’ Department of Neurology, said.

UPMC’s action highlights the advantage that telemedicine and telehealth have in helping health systems provide access to specialists in underserved communities. It also shows that healthcare providers can use this to their advantage in competitive markets.

Penn Health’s Gilbert, speaking to Lancaster Online, noted there’s a national shortage of specialists to treat patients with MS, a complex chronic condition.

READ MORE: In the Northeast, Telehealth Gets Creative - With Good Results

And Dr. Michael Consuelos, senior vice president of clinical integration for the Harrisburg-based Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, told the news service that neurology is one of several specialties – pediatric neurology and adult rheumatology are two more - that many health systems struggle to acquire.

That makes telehealth and telemedicine all the more important, especially at a time when consumers are demanding more of their primary care providers, and they’re shopping around when they need more than a local hospital or physician practice can offer.

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