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Telemedicine expanding, saving more at-risk babies

by Helen Adams | News Center | Nov. 18, 2014

Brain Stimulation

Helen Adams
Scott A. Sullivan, M.D., uses a webcam and a secure connection to help pregnant women in rural South Carolina who need his expertise but can't come to MUSC.


More babies and mothers are surviving high-risk pregnancies thanks to a telemedicine program at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“We’ve been able to reduce the extremely premature birthrate, the neonatal death rate – South Carolina has one of the higher rates of that – and lower the maternal death rate,” said Scott Sullivan, M.D.

Sullivan directs MUSC’s Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

South Carolina has 12 counties that are so rural, they do not have a single obstetrician, much less a high-risk pregnancy specialist, he said. Some other counties have obstetricians but no specialists anywhere nearby.

With the help of webcams and software that offers a secure video connection, an increasing number of women in rural South Carolina are able to go to their local doctor’s office or community hospital and connect with experts at MUSC.

Sullivan said technology has improved to the point that consultations are usually seamless. 

“The size of our telemedicine program has already doubled twice,” Sullivan said.

It started in 2005, but technology didn’t catch up with the program’s needs until 2008. The early consultations were sometimes interrupted by poor video or audio connections. Today, they are usually seamless.

“When we started out, we were seeing five or 10 pregnant patients a week. Then it was 20, and now it’s 40,” Sullivan said in his office at MUSC.

On the patient’s end, the appointment works like this: The woman goes to her doctor’s office or hospital for an exam, and she can see and talk with Sullivan by webcam. She, her local medical team and Sullivan discuss everything from her latest ultrasound image to the health condition that is complicating her pregnancy. She may suffer from diabetes, hypertension or cancer, or she may have suffered some sort of trauma that puts the baby at risk.

That’s where Sullivan’s expertise comes in. He’s had specialized training to prepare him to help women coping with health problems that may affect their babies. He also works closely with other high-risk pregnancy experts at MUSC and has access to resources that might not be available in more rural facilities.

Ideally, he’d like to see all of his patients in person, but that’s not possible.

“There are innumerable reasons they can’t make a trip here,” Sullivan said. “It’s child care, it’s their job, they don’t have a working vehicle, or perhaps they’re in the hospital in Florence or Hilton Head or some place like that and they can’t physically come to us.”

Telemedicine offers a way for the women to get the expertise they need.

The MUSC high-risk pregnancy telemedicine program started small, Sullivan said. Now, it’s connected with offices in Florence, Georgetown, Hilton Head, Bluffton and other locations.

“Essentially over six years, we’ve shown a positive health impact and decreased costs overall,” Sullivan said.

MUSC offers several other telemedicine programs including a telestroke program called REACH MUSC and the Virtual TeleConsult Clinic.

“There’s a lot of this, I think, that’s going to continue to grow,” Sullivan said.

He discussed the growth of the high-risk pregnancy telemedicine program last week on the statewide public radio show Your Day with interviewer Bobbi Conner. Their conversation was part of a series of Your Day interviews with MUSC experts.

Recent interviews that have aired but are available online: Carol Wagner (air date Oct. 27), professor of pediatrics and associate director of clinical and translational research at MUSC, discusses the risk vitamin D deficiency poses to pregnant women and young children; Richard Silver (air date Oct. 13), distinguished university professor of medicine and pediatrics, rheumatologist and director of the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, discusses osteoarthritis; and Angela LaRosa (air date Sept. 22), associate professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics, talks about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. 
For a complete list of archived interviews with MUSC experts on Your Day, visit this website.



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Video: See how telemedicine at MUSC works

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Resources >>

Audio: Scott Sullivan on Your Day

MUSC Center for Telehealth

Decreasing the preterm birth rate through telehealth

MUSC News Center archives




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