Blue Mountain Health System and Lehigh Valley Health Network have once again teamed up to provide exceptional medical care, this time through a telemedicine partnership that brings infectious disease specialists to patients via a mobile videoconferencing cart.

That means patients don't have to travel out of Carbon County to the specialists, making consultations more convenient. Telemedicine reduces the risk of exposing others to the illness because no travel is involved, saves time and money, and increases access to experts.

The equipment was purchased with a grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for the Advancement of Telehealth Office Rural Health Policy, said Joseph Tracy, vice-president for Telehealth Services at Lehigh Valley Health Network. The base cost of the equipment was about $18,000.

"This particular project is one of the best," Tracy said.

On Monday, Blue Mountain Health System Medical/Surgical/ICU Director Susan Jansen demonstrated how the system works by using an electronic stethoscope to monitor the heart and lung sounds of Telehealth Services clinical coordinator Lori Yesenofski, who portrayed a patient with a diabetic leg wound.

Here's how it works: a patient needing to consult with an infectious disease specialist is in a private room with a nurse. A cart holding a high-definition flat screen monitor with a patient-exam camera mounted on top and a document camera mounted on the side, is wheeled into the room. The patient-exam camera transmits the video image of the patient and nurse to the specialist at Lehigh Valley Health Network. The specialist's video image is transmitted to the flat screen monitor, so the patient and nurse can see him in real time.

The system includes a hand-held video camera that allows the nurse to transmit images from areas of the patient's body that are not in the direct view of the top-mounted camera. The system also includes an electronic stethoscope that allows the specialist to hear the patient's heart and lung sounds.

The patient's medical records can be scanned and instantly transmitted to the specialist's monitor via the document camera. Doctor, nurse and patient can ask and answer questions as though they were all in the same room.

The image and sound transmissions are not recorded; patient privacy is guarded.

Before the demonstration, officials from Blue Mountain Health System's Gnaden Huetten and Palmerton campuses and Lehigh Valley Health Network gathered at the Gnaden Huetten campus in Lehighton to introduce the telemedicine system, dubbed "George."

Blue Mountain Health System president/CEO Andrew E. Harris recalled the forging two years ago of the alliance between BMHS and LVHN.

That affiliation led to increased access to specialists, programs and services for Carbon County residents. They include the MI Alert program, which dramatically reduced the time for cardiac catheterizations; and the teleburn program, through which burn victims are treated at local hospitals through collaboration with the Lehigh Valley burn unit.

The telemedicine system, he said, is "state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment to conduct real-time consultations between world-renowned infectious disease specialists at Lehigh Valley and the patient, physician and treatment team here at Blue Mountain."

Dr. Ronald W. Swinford, president/CEO of Lehigh Valley Health Network, said telemedicine eases access for patients to the doctors they need.

"Infectious disease specialists are sort of rarities," he said.

One of those specialists is Dr. Luther Rhodes, chief of Infectious Diseases for LVHN. He cited a case several years ago when a patient in the Lehigh Valley area was diagnosed with SARS, a very serious and highly contagious form of pneumonia that can lead to death.

"It was a very scary kind of event for all of us," Rhodes said. "Infectious disease is a scary kind of a deal."

Rhodes said there "aren't many physicians trained for infectious disease." Telemedicine, he said, "allows us to resource multiply to take a few people in different counties, have their talent used over a network. The examinations are a two-way street. The patient sees the doctor and hears the doctor, as well as the doctor sees the patient and hears the patient."

Patient privacy is protected. "We make sure it's not being broadcast, it's not being recorded," Rhodes said.

Dr. Clement McGinley, chief of Medical Affairs for BMHS, said telemedicine can help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

"It's very important that we have this service available for those patients who, in the past, we would have to transfer to Lehigh Valley or another tertiary care institution," he said. McGinley said doctors hope to expand the use of telemedicine beyond infectious diseases.