Emergency physicians in Douglas will now be able to connect with neurologists in Casper via a screen and camera-wielding robot in an effort to better treat stroke victims, thanks to a partnership between the hospitals in both communities.
The agreement, called TeleStroke Wyoming, is part of Wyoming Medical Center's TeleMed program that will attempt to connect Wyoming's sprawl of rural hospitals to WMC. Dr. David Wheeler, who heads WMC's neurology clinic here, recently led a training of the new system with physicians from Memorial Hospital of Converse County.
WMC spokeswoman Kristy Bleizeffer told the Star-Tribune that the hospital, Wyoming's largest in terms of licensed beds, has also reached an agreement with Sheridan Memorial Hospital, as well, and is "working with three other Wyoming communities."
The partnerships come as Wyoming physicians and policymakers promote telehealth as a method to bring health care to all corners of rural Wyoming. Both Gov.-elect Mark Gordon and his opponent, Mary Throne, highlighted telehealth, as have other officials across the state. Last week, the state's Labor, Health and Social Services Committee received an hourlong report on the state of telehealth in Wyoming.
The robot that brings Casper neurologists into Douglas and Sheridan ERs looks like a pole with a cylindrical camera attached to the top, with a screen in the middle and a small desk beneath it. It is mobile, according to a WMC press release, and can be wheeled into patients' rooms so WMC doctors can examine them from afar.
The robot can zoom in and out and swing from side to side, as well, according to WMC.
Bleizeffer said that the robot "is provided to partnering hospitals at no charge" and that those hospitals will not be paying WMC for the service.
"This endeavor is an effort to provide life-saving stroke care to people across the state," she said in a written response to questions. "Nearly half of Wyoming citizens live an hour or more from the nearest hospital, and that hospital is typically a critical access hospital. Quick, accurate diagnosis is essential for such patients to ensure they are treated in time for the best possible outcome."
“We want to help every hospital become certified as Acute Stroke Ready or as a Primary Stroke Center,” Wheeler added in the same statement. “We’re bringing up the quality of care in these other facilities, and I see that as the most important thing: Making cutting-edge stroke care available for every citizen of Wyoming.”
He said that he expects WMC's stroke team's workload to "increase significantly," though the current group should be able to handle it. If the volume picks up in the coming years, he said, the hospital may hire another health care provider.
Maribel Frank, WMC's associate vice president for population health and outreach, said the hospital has been in discussions with various telehealth platforms since last year. They signed a deal with InTouch -- which makes the robot -- sometime after Frank's arrival in June, and the hospital began laying the ground work after that.
Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to WMC.
"Life-saving stroke care is measured in minutes," Bleizeffer wrote in a separate statement announcing the partnership. "Time is brain, and the faster the blocked vessel is cleared, the better the chance for a patient’s survival and recovery. While studies show that treatment times decrease and treatment choices improve when a neurologist is involved early in the care of a stroke patient, few Wyoming hospitals have 24-hour neurology coverage."