By Jillian McGehee, Editor
Arkansas’s second and newest medical school, at the tender age of one, offers something other medical schools in America do not – an unprecedented focus on teaching the technologies and relationship techniques distinctive to the world of telemedicine.
The New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (Arkansas’s new osteopathic med school housed at ASU) just completed its first year of operation. Important to its mission is preparing future physicians who are ready to comfortably work within the newest patient contact technologies born of the digital age, says the school’s dean, Dr. Shane Speights.
Osteopathic physicians, who are fully licensed and practice in every medical specialty, offer a unique approach to patient care by looking at the whole person. They reach diagnoses through a holistic approach not based solely on a patient’s presenting symptoms.
ASU’s osteopathic medical school opened its doors in August 2016; its parent, NYITCOM, was established in 1977. Leaders at the institute early on put in place a strong medical curriculum designed to produce excellent physicians and researchers, Speights said.
“But you also have to prepare physicians who are ready to work within the technologies and patient care methods evolving today,” he says. Speights leads faculty and students in academic co-curricular activities including telemedicine and engaging in community outreach with hospitals and physicians in Jonesboro and the greater Delta region.
Earning his medical degree from the University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City, Speights is an Arkansas native and no stranger to Northeast Arkansas. He completed his residency training at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Northeast Center in Jonesboro, which is one of eight UAMS regional centers located throughout the state. His residency in Family Medicine was completed at St. Bernards Medical Center, Jonesboro.
Filling a Need
The osteopathic school is especially important to Northeast Arkansas as it seeks to fulfill health needs of patients in the Delta and surrounding states through the art of telemedicine, Speights notes.
Telemedicine is important anywhere, he says, adding that, for example, it can ease the frustrations of patients in New York who might have trouble getting places because of intense traffic. In the Delta, patients may experience other challenges, such as being unable to afford travel to a specialty clinic located half a state away from a patient’s hometown.
“The thing we ask ourselves is, ‘How do we make health services more accessible for patients?’” he says.
Preparing Future Physicians
NYITCOM begins the telemedicine experience by introducing first-year medical students to the equipment itself, and the beginning concepts of how to interact with patients through screen-based technologies. “We start to remove barriers to the utilization of telemedicine that first year,” Speights says.
Each successive area of medical study incorporates telemedicine. Some specialties are more suited than others to having the patient/physician relationship occur by way of the Internet, but every specialty can make use of telemedicine as a tool where physicians interact with their patients to provide information and education, he says. “It’s the engaging of patients in discussion with their physicians that often makes the difference in a patient’s care,” Speights explains. In his own practice, he has utilized telemedicine to save his patients driving an hour or more for an office visit. “Physicians don’t necessarily have to physically be in front of a patient to provide that critical information and education.”
Telemedicine can save not only patients’ time, but also medical dollars for both the provider and the patient, Speights says. “Surgery follow-up (where the surgery was performed in a city distant from the patient’s home) is a good example of this,” he explains. “Telemedicine allows any post-surgical patient to travel mere minutes to their local clinic or hospital where they can remotely talk with their surgeon, who may be located hours away in another city, using today’s telemedicine technology. That’s what we’re teaching our students: how to communicate and maintain patient/physician relationships remotely through the skilled use of telemedicine.”
“As our students progress through their medical school careers,” Speights says, “we require them to complete rural rotations and work within our telehealth communities to help them advance their skills in telemedicine.”
“In current practice, the biggest obstacle with telemedicine is not with the patients,” Speights says. “It’s with the doctors. They see telemedicine as cutting into their rhythm; this is largely because they weren’t trained to use it effectively.”
He comments that too often, he will walk into rural hospitals and see the physical components of telemedicine sitting idle. “The technology is in place, but adoption of its use can be slow,” Speights says.
“We’re trying to overcome perceived hurdles by introducing telemedicine as a truly personal approach to the practice of medicine,” he says. “Medicine is rapidly evolving and being able to keep pace is a difficult challenge, but this method of practice can make all the difference when a community is short of physicians, or patients live in isolated communities.”
“Older adults typically are the highest utilizers of health care,” Speights notes. “You’ll hear this age group isn’t welcoming the new technology, but our experience shows that a huge percentage of retirees readily accept it and are routinely using it.”
Indeed, studies show that older adults embrace telemedicine technologies and telehealth advancements now more than ever before.
A dozen years ago, a 2005 AARP study looking at the then-newer field of telemedicine and its acceptance by older populations debunked the notion that older adults don’t go online. “This may have once been true, but it’s rapidly changing,” the study indicates. “As Boomers grow into the AARP demographic, use of the Internet won’t just be an option, it will be the first choice of health communication tools.”
Six years ago, Humana Cares launched an extensive remote care management program where 2,000 of its members with congestive heart failure (100% of whom were aged 65 or older) were given remote care monitoring devices that included daily biometric monitoring and member education. Near the conclusion of the pilot, participants expressed high satisfaction with the technology and, in fact, were reluctant to give it up. Kate Marcus, clinical operations manager for Humana Cares, said at the time, “As we are removing these devices from the home, we are seeing how connected the members are to their devices and how connected they are to their [program] nurses.”
Many such studies and successive programs with telehealth at their core support Speights’ suggestion that teaching medical students the proper uses and intricacies of telemedicine is imperative in today’s health care world.
The new ASU-based NYITCOM school of osteopathic medicine provides one of many paths for Arkansans to pursue as they seek careers in medicine. “A lot of people who grow up here don’t want to leave. This school gives people a new option, and it makes health care better for everyone,” Speights says.
Dr. Speights would like to acknowledge that the NYITCOM-ASU campus would not have been established and running successfully today without the support of Jonesboro’s St. Bernards hospital, the local Chamber of Commerce and the surrounding and profoundly accommodating community. Please visit www.nyit.edu/medicine for more information about its innovative approach to telemedicine and the teaching of future physicians.