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MUSC Plans a Statewide Telehealth Network for Palliative Care

The Medical University of South Carolina is looking to create a statewide telehealth network to give smaller hospitals and clinics a connected health platform for palliative care services.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- The Medical University of South Carolina is looking to launch a statewide telehealth platform for rural and remote healthcare providers needing assistance in palliative care.

Backed by a three-year grant of almost $1.3 million from the Duke Endowment, the Charleston-based hospital is researching how a connected care platform would help providers treating patients with serious illnesses, including those nearing death.

“We’ve identified a clear need for telehealth in providing palliative care,” says Emily Sigmon, the urgent care coordinator at the MUSC Health Center for Telehealth. “Now we have to work on identifying partnerships.”

This past May, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law a bill requiring the state to evaluate its healthcare resources for seriously and terminally ill patients; the bill also established a Palliative Care and Quality of Life Study Committee. At the time, the governor noted the state had a serious shortage of healthcare providers capable of providing palliative care, particularly in rural areas where access to care is limited.

“There is certainly opportunity for improvement,” Dr. Conrad Williams, a physician who provides palliative care for infants and children at MUSC, told the Post and Courier following the governor’s action. “We definitely have more opportunity to improve than most other states.”

Two months later, MUSC secured the Duke Endowment grant to tackle that issue.

“Palliative care programs have demonstrated the ability to support patients with serious illness by improving pain and symptom management, reducing anxiety and depression, and increasing patient and family satisfaction,” Lin Hollowell, director of healthcare for The Duke Endowment, said in a July 2018 press release announcing the MUSC grant. “By bringing an intentional focus on holistically meeting the needs of patients facing serious, life-threatening illnesses, this effort will improve care for people across South Carolina.”

“We have always been focused on improving the quality of life of for patients and their families when facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness,” Lauren Seidenschmidt, MUSC Health’s palliative care program manager, added in the release. “With help from The Duke Endowment, and as a leader in palliative care and telehealth, we are incredibly excited to increase access to these services. The need is great in our state, and we are so pleased to be able to do even more to meet it.”

As one of two federally designated National Telehealth Centers of Excellence, MUSC has built up a wide repertoire of telehealth and telemedicine programs designed to help smaller hospitals and rural clinics access the resources they need to treat patients locally.  

Sigmon says MUSC’s research to date has found that smaller, more rural health providers don’t have the expertise needed to treat patients in need of palliative care, who require complex care coordination programs that include primary care providers, specialists and family members.

“There’s a lot that goes into this type of care,” she says, ticking off family meetings, advanced care planning, pain and symptom management and even end-of-life directives. “You need to identify everyone involved, make sure the family is included, and create a program that meets all of their needs.”

A key element to creating a telehealth-based palliative care program, Sigmon says, is educating providers about what goes into such a program. There’s a “delicate balance,” she says, between providing medical treatment and compassionate care for patients nearing the end of their life.

“You’re creating a team-based approach,” she says, “that goes beyond clinical care. You want to focus on being there when you’re needed.”

She also notes the program isn’t just for elderly patients.

“This can happen at any age,” she says.

While the current model calls for a provider-to-provider program, assisting hospitals and clinics around the state in providing palliative care on-site, Sigmon says the platform could someday evolve into a service combining hospital-based and home-based care.

But for now, MUSC is focused on creating a network of hospitals using telehealth and telemedicine to improve palliative care in their communities. The health system wants to start with five hospitals, and Sigmon expects that number to increase as the program kicks into gear.

“We definitely want to use this across the state,” she says. “There’s a need for this kind of care no matter where you look.”

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