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Telemedicine Program Brings Diabetic Eye Exams to Upstate New York

Backed by state funding and a health plan grant, healthcare providers in New York's rural north country will soon have access to a telemedicine platform for diabetic retinopathy screening.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- A long-awaited telemedicine program will soon enable healthcare providers in northern New York to screen patients for diabetic retinopathy.

Funded by a grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and state funds secured by a local legislator, the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization will soon be placing telemedicine technology in 28 sites across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

The asynchronous telemedicine platform, which includes a RetinaVue 100 Imager camera, will enable local healthcare providers to screen patients for the dangerous eye condition, send the data to an ophthalmologist or optometrist and receive a diagnosis within 24 hours.

Only about 55 percent of resident with diabetes in New York’s sparsely populated north country have been tested for retinopathy in the past year, according to local officials. The statewide average, meanwhile, is almost 75 percent.

Robert P. Hunt, the Fort Drum RHPO’s Regional TeleHealth Program Manager and Regional Fiber Network Manager, told the Watertown Daily Times the telehealth service enables local primary care providers to coordinate better care for their patients.

“They go to their physician regularly because they have to get the medication to manage their diabetes, so while we have them there we can now initiate this step and give them some peace of mind as to what shape their eyes are in,” he said.

Funding for the program is crucial. Last year, Fort Drum RHPO’s previous telehealth coordinator, David Johnson, told mHealthIntelligence that he’d been working for several years to bring a retinopathy screening program to the region. He and other telehealth advocates in the area often had to search for willing partners to launch such a program.

“Many of the providers in our region are extremely busy,” he said. “They’re not looking to expand their practices. They’re at capacity,” so they’d be more inclined to consider telehealth projects that ease their workflows and push services from the crowded office or clinic to the patient.

“We could be several years away from” reimbursement for such a program, he added. “So we have to find those partners who are willing to position themselves for the future.”

One year later, those partners are in place. Excellus BCBS is funding the program through a three-year, $150,000 Member and Community Health Improvement Grant, while an additional $50,000 was carved out of the state budget last fall through the efforts of state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

Excellus BCBS officials say the north country project is one of several telemedicine partnerships organized by the Rochester, N.Y.-based health plan, which coordinates screening services through the David & Ilene Flaum Eye Institute at the University of Rochester.

“People with diabetes live with an increased risk of becoming blind, a condition that can be prevented most of the time by getting a complete eye exam each year. Early detection allows for early treatment,” LouAnne Giangreco, MD, Excellus’ chief medical officer for healthcare improvement said in a March press release.  “It can be challenging to make time in our busy schedules to prioritize our health. We are working with partners in the healthcare community to provide diabetic patients with those important reminders to have regular eye exams.”

“Patients with diabetic retinopathy have a 95 percent chance of keeping their vision if they receive treatment before the retina is severely damaged,” she added. “This retinal screening program provides services in the office making it more convenient for them to receive this important exam.”

Two years ago, the five-hospital CoxHealth network in Missouri launched a telemedicine platform for diabetic retinopathy screening in an effort to boost the 32 percent compliance rate it was seeing for annual exams. In a 10-week study period, the health system uncovered more than 300 undiagnosed cases of diabetic retinopathy in 1,865 patient exams, with 22 cases serious enough to pose a threat of blindness.

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