MedNow program allows patients to remotely connect with doctors

LUDINGTON — On Dec. 10, Spectrum Health officially debuted its new MedNow telehealth system at Ludington Hospital.

MedNow is a service which allows patients to contact a doctor and video chat with them from any smartphone or desktop with a camera and microphone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also has stations at hospitals and medical centers in Spectrum Health's network, including Big Rapids Hospital, Reed City Hospital, the Susan P. Wheatlake Cancer Center, Gerber Hospital and Greenville United Hospital, where patients can chat with specialists at other hospitals.

"We used to have to drive all the way to Grand Rapids to see our doctor when we live in Manistee Township," explained Jean Maloney, whose husband Joseph needs regular appointments with a cardiologist. "Now we just talk with our doctor over video here at Ludington Hospital. They can even take his blood pressure here and the doctor can see the results in Grand Rapids. It's better for us travel-wise, time-wise and money-wise. It's so convenient."

There is even equipment such as electric stethoscopes where a nurse at one location can use the equipment to examine the patient, while a doctor in a different location can hear or see the results.

Spectrum Health began researching telehealth options in 2012 following a shortage of available cardiologists. Tracey Burke, the director of the MedNow program, said at first people were skeptical, but most have since come around after seeing the results.

"Historically, the barriers to implementing telehealth services were technology, reimbursement and a lack of support of doctors," explained Burke. "Now more and more doctors are reporting how this service is just as good as personal care and the technology has advanced to where a doctor can actually get a better view using these cameras than if they were standing right next to the patient. We are still adapting to the reimbursement aspect of adding telehealth to our services, but we don't care because offering a program like MedNow is the right thing to do."

Spectrum Health estimated a trip for Manistee residents like the Maloneys to go to Grand Rapids adds up to $140 in non-medical expenses, after factoring in costs such as gas, food and having to take time off from work.

"I was so surprised when it was offered," remarked patient Shirley Woirol. "I wasn't sure what to expect because I'm not very computer savvy, but it was all very easy. My doctor did just as good of a job being in a different city as he would have if he were in the room with me."

Those who participated in the testing phase reported no downsides to the MedNow program and said the service was excellent and the technology easy to use. The average age of those who tested the equipment was 50, while the oldest patient using the services was 92. Spectrum Health also totes MedNow as a boon for doctors as well as patients.

"This technology allows physicians to connect with specialists without having to leave the office," said Helen Johnson, chief nursing officer and vice president for patient services at Ludinton Hospital.

Dr. Dennis Besley, a cardiologist who was part of the test program, agreed.

"It increases our flexibility and allows us to see patients sooner rather than later," he said. "It allows specialists to connect with places sooner and more often and provides patients with more options."

All of Spectrum Health's hospitals and medical centers are going to offer the MedNow service and cooperate with the other facilities. From anywhere, patients can talk to general practitioners at several of the locations, oncology and behavioral health specialists in Reed City or cardiologists in Ludington.

Spectrum Health also is talking to other medical facilities in the area about possible cooperative agreements regarding telehealth services.

Telehealth programs are catching on in several medical systems across the country. There is even peripheral equipment which can be attached to a smart phone patients can buy to transmit information to doctors from home.

"There is equipment like an otoscope camera for looking inside a person's ear which you can plug right into your phone," said Johnson. "So, for instance, if you have a kid who suffers from chronic ear infections the parent doesn't have to make constant trips to the doctor's office. The doctor can see what the otoscpe camera sees and make a diagnosis any time of day without either of them going anywhere."

Burke said the cost of an emergency room visit generally costs about $370, with a copay of $150. Costs for the general practitioner video chats are $45, while the costs for a video appointment with a specialist are the same as if it were a face-to-face visit.

"This is a new way of delivering help to patients," said Burke. "Patients have always paid a premium cost to come to us and wait for us, and this is totally turning that attitude on its head."

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