JOHNSTOWN — The Fulton County Public Health Department will begin a pilot telehealth program in July aimed at improving health care access throughout the county and decreasing rehospitalizations and unnecessary emergency room visits.
After the department assesses the experiences and statistics it garners from the pilot project within three to five months, it will be able to expand the telehealth program with an $80,000 Innovation Grant it has received from the Adirondack Health Institute Performing Provider System, according to Dr. Irina Gelman, director of the health department.
The aim is eventually to provide the residents of the county, which has many rural areas, with easier physical and electronic access to health care providers.
“The potential is immense,” Gelman said. “The sky is the limit.”
The pilot program will set up health stations at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, the county Office for Aging and Youth and the Public Health Department to enable the agencies’ clients to have ready access to their health care providers, whether it be physicians, physician assistants or nurse practitioners. This can include clients’ minor-to-major emergent health issues or something as routine as prescription refills.
Gelman said the pilot program’s goal is both the improvement of patient health and the reduction, by at least 25 percent, of emergency department use and rehospitalizations. Both St. Mary’s Healthcare and Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home will participate in the pilot and, later, the broader implementation of telehealth.
Both the experiences and data gathered by the pilot program will be reviewed by the county health department. These will be double-checked by AHI, which is located in Glens Falls, and the Bassett Research Institute in Schoharie County “to ensure viable statistical data,” according to Gelman.
Drawing on the pilot experience, the health department will use the $80,000 to set up a countywide network of health stations that will comprise Johnstown, Gloversville, Stratford, Caroga, Bleecker, Mayfield, Northampton, Broadalbin, Perth, Ephratah and Oppenheim— “at least one in everyone of our communities,” Gelman said. County residents will have access to health care providers both physically or by any electronic means, such landlines, cellphones and computers.
Gelman distinguished this network of telehealth, which will connect area residents to nearby health care, from telemedicine, which connects people—more distantly—with medical providers in other states.
“You’re not calling California, you’re calling a provider locally” she said.
“Fulton County is a rural county with restricted access to care, given the limited provider panel, remote location and low population density,” said Gelman.
As the larger, countywide network is in operation, the experience gained that network may lead to more health stations, she said.
The post-pilot implementation of telehealth has the potential of positively affecting 55,000 county residents, according to an AHI news release.
The experience of Fulton County is expected to inform telehealth innovations in the five North Country regions served by the AHI. “It is anticipated this Innovation Grant project will substantially improve population health, as well as create a blueprint for telehealth innovation across the entire PPS [Performing Provider System],” said Margaret M. Vosburgh, chief executive officer of the AHI.