The Tricorder wielded by Star Trek's Dr. Leonard McCoy is the go-to, whiz-bang medical technology best known to the masses. Seemingly able to do everything but give birth to a human, the gadget continues to be a mostly unobtainable medical aspiration.
But in ways that would have been no less fantastic 50 years ago, the digital age in medicine is changing lives.
This package of stories highlights some of Kentucky's telehealth innovations that already are making a difference — a Baptist Health Lexington program where home monitors are talking heart patients through daily checkups; the Blue Angels program from UK HealthCare that uses remote ultrasounds and pairs pregnant women at risk for complications with doctors 100 miles away, and the St. Joseph-Berea telemedicine connection that matches mental health patients in crisis with expert evaluation in minutes.
Similar innovations are happening across the country. According to the American Hospital, or AHA,, more than half of U.S. hospitals offer some telemedicine program, and the number is growing.
•At-risk moms get special care from UK doctors via remote ultrasound program
•Peace of mind for heart patients comes with Baptist Health Homecare digital home monitor
Kentucky is among 20 states that require private insurers to offer equal coverage of similar in-patient and telemedicine services, according to a January AHA report. The most widely used telemedicine services still are mostly supplemental and voluntary. For example, emergency room patients in Berea have to agree to be evaluated via a secure digital connection. It is not the default or as automatic as putting a monitor on a person with chest pains.
Convenience and access are the biggest benefits of telehealth, but programs such as Baptist Health's heart monitoring can reduce costs by helping people stay out of the hospital and at home and independent.
Innovations that help one patient can help the system overall. For example, finding the right tool to evaluate mental health patients quickly, as they have at St. Joseph Berea, frees ER staff and space to cope with trauma cases.
And, in the case of UK's Blue Angels, diagnosing pre-natal complications means a newborn can get the specialized care it might need to survive.