Parkinson's patient Betty Leebel was the first Delawarean to use a new telelink service at La Red Health Center in Georgetown for an online appointment with her specialist in Baltimore.
Betty, who has had Parkinson's for 10 years, moved to Lewes in 2008 and has been traveling twice a year to Baltimore to meet with Dr. Ray Dorsey, head of the Johns Hopkins Parkinson's Disease and Movements Disorder Center.
Dennis Leebel, Betty's husband and an advocate for Parkinson's patients, said there are no neurologists in Delaware who specialize in movement disorders and Parkinson's. But Dorsey, a neurologist, is a leading supporter of telemedicine, which allows him to see patients over the internet.
Dorsey worked with Dennis for more than two years to bring the technology to Sussex County.
Dorsey had to become licensed in Delaware in order to serve patients here, Dennis said. Then La Red needed to get its new building up and running and work out an agreement with Johns Hopkins.
The technology at La Red uses a software program called Vydyo, which is similar to Skype, but provides added security protection for personal medical information discussed during the doctor's appointment.
Dennis said he expects in the future, patients will talk to doctors on smartphones.
He said Dorsey offers a one-time consultation at a patient's home via the telemedicine portal, but Medicare and Medicaid won't pay for doctor visits to a patient's home, so for now patients using the telemedicine service must go to a health center like La Red.
Brian Olson, CEO of La Red in Georgetown said in addition to providing telelink for Parkinson's patients, the health center also hopes to expand telemedicine services to dermatology and psychology patients, who Olson says are underserved in Sussex.
The La Red telelink is the first of its kind in Delaware. Similar telemedicine services are available in Salisbury, Md., but Olson said other hospitals including Beebe Medical Center are interested in using the technology. University of Delaware researchers have also expressed interest in using telemedicine.
"Dennis really drove this project," said Delaware Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf during the July 10 launch in Georgetown.
The Delaware Telemedicine Coalition, formed by DHSS, is working to provide telemedicine opportunities throughout the state. Landgraf said many doctors and patients can use the online service. Medicaid and some private insurers cover telelink appointments, she said.
A Medicare update slated for 2014 could include a new reimbursement model for telemedicine, Landgraf said. For now, Dorsey is using funds from a $1.7 million grant to determine the effectiveness of telemedicine in underserved areas like Sussex County.
Dorsey, who spoke via the telelink, said, "Telemedicine doesn't allow doctors to assess a patient's physical wellness, but we can provide care by listening to the patient and being able to give recommendations and advice."
During Dorsey's appointment with Betty, Kay Malone, chief operations officer for La Red, held the laptop so Dorsey could watch Betty walk in the hallway. Using health centers, like the federally licensed La Red center, allows patients to meet with their specialist while also receiving assistance from La Red staff.
Dorsey said cases like Betty's are perfect for telemedicine because, as a longtime patient, she already has a relationship with him. For new patients, he would still recommend in-person visits, but he said he hasn't met many of the hundreds of telemedicine patients he sees through Johns Hopkins Global Telemedicine Clinic for Parkinson's Disease.
"This is a huge improvement in getting medical treatment for people with Parkinson's," Dennis said. "It's one step in improving services for Parkinson's patients here."
Leebel is also working with Parkinson's support groups in Sussex County on his next project: to bring in a specialist who will train health professionals and fitness trainers on the best exercises to improve movement for Parkinson's patients.
For the Leebels, telemedicine means much less travel, which Betty said can be exhausting for her and others with Parkinson's Disease.
"This is a great option for many people; I like that it saves me a long car ride," Betty said.
For more information on the Delaware Telemedicine Coalition, call 302-255-9370. For more information on Parkinson's support groups or Parkinson's information, call Dennis Leebel at 302-644-3465.
La Red Health Center is at 21444 Carmean Way, Georgetown, across Route 18 from Delaware Technical Community College. For more information on La Red, call 302-855-1233.
For more on Johns Hopkins telemedicine programs for Parkinson's, go to Johns Hopkins website at www.hopkinsmedicine.org and search Global Telemedicine Clinic for Parkinson’s Disease.