Stethoscope and prescription tablet

CHEYENNE – The keys to Wyomingites having better access to medical care could be a laptop and a webcam.

In the battle to increase access to doctors and decrease the cost of medical treatment, some in Wyoming’s medical field are pushing the state to focus more on telemedicine.

The practice, which also goes by the name telehealth, allows doctors in one location to provide medical care to patients in another location. By using an internet connection and new equipment – like a stethoscope that works over the internet – a doctor in another state could give a full exam to a patient somewhere in Wyoming.

The state is uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of using technology to provide medical access, no matter where a doctor or patient is located, said Dr. Lisa Finkelstein, president of the Wyoming Medical Society. She laid out what the state government needs to do during a Tuesday meeting of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee.

“This year has been invigorating. Wyoming is overflowing with inspired, free-thinking people in health care,” Finkelstein said. “Innovation and ideas are flowing throughout our rural state. And people are looking to Wyoming to test some of their (telemedicine) projects.”

Wyoming has already laid much of the groundwork to take advantage of telemedicine, Finkelstein said. The Legislature put regulations in place and created the Wyoming Telehealth Consortium in 2009 to help promote telemedicine. And Wyoming was one of the first states to take part in the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which gives doctors an expedited path to working in multiple states.

The state’s Medicaid department also treats telemedicine visits with doctors as an in-person visit when it comes to payments.

But for Wyoming to truly take the next step in telemedicine and make it a prominent tool for care, Finkelstein said state government needs to make promoting telemedicine a priority.

That means putting more money into educating doctors about how telemedicine works, the resources already available to the medical field and how it will improve the overall care they can provide to patients.

Finkelstein asked lawmakers to make it a priority by forming a task force, and to make a concerted effort to educate doctors about the practice and how to take advantage of the tools already available for them to use.

“It’s a new day in Wyoming for telehealth. It can help all of us,” Finkelstein said. “Telehealth is a huge undertaking. It has been growing slowly and organically, but the concept has not been a priority for Wyoming. So my first ask of the Legislature is to make telehealth a priority. If there are legislators interested in saving money, and improving patient access and satisfaction, then jump on the train.”

Currently, the state is seeing telemedicine being used primarily for mental health counseling. In 2017, 1,287 people received care through telemedicine from 71 providers, Wyoming Department of Health Director Tom Forslund said during the meeting. He said more than 80 percent of those cases were mental health or drug addiction treatment.

In the last biennium budget, Wyoming put aside just $80,000 for telemedicine, and the Department of Health doesn’t have any staff fully dedicated to the field, Forslund said. For there to be a massive push, and to show the state’s desire to see telemedicine being utilized more, he said the Legislature needs to give more direction and money to make it happen.

“It hasn’t been established as a priority of the state government. There’s been a lot of discussion during the course of the last election season. Gubernatorial candidates, legislative candidates have been talking about telehealth and trying to get more into it as a state as a whole,” Forslund said. “But at the end of the day if they’re looking for the Department of Health to promote it, like I said, we have $40,000 a year in general funds attached to it.

“If telehealth is a high priority going forward, then my suggestion is that resources be put into it and it becomes more of an aggressive move. Right now, it’s secondary.”

The committee didn’t put forward any draft legislation or talk about possible expenditures Tuesday. But given the interest on the campaign trail by people like Gov.-elect Mark Gordon, the next budget session could have a strong focus on increasing awareness of telemedicine.

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