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Release: Immediate

UI launches telemedicine project with Department of Corrections

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- For residents of Iowa's prisons, an appointment with a University of Iowa doctor may no longer mean a trip to Iowa City. Some inmates soon will receive health care services via a two-way video system that permits long-distance consultations with medical staff and patients at remote sites.

The collaborative project involves faculty and staff at the UI College of Medicine, the UI Hospitals and Clinics, and the Iowa Department of Corrections. Teleconsultations will begin March 4 with the Iowa Medical and Classifications Center at Oakdale, and the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. The project may expand to other institutions once researchers have evaluated its initial phase.

Transporting prisoners to the UIHC requires considerable time and expense, as each inmate must be supervised by a correctional officer. In fiscal year 1996, there were 4,356 trips to the UIHC from the state's prison facilities. A single trip from Fort Madison costs as much as $400.

"We hope this technology will reduce the number of off-site visits to the UIHC," says Dr. Paul Loeffelholz, medical director for the Department of Corrections, who heads the prison system's management team for the project. "In addition to the dollars saved, telemedicine can enhance public safety, which is especially important with high-risk inmates."

Using a portable video unit outfitted with tools for performing a physical examination, prison medical staff can consult with UI physicians miles away. They can use special scopes to view a patient's ears, throat or skin, capturing images that are transmitted to the UI. They also can share x-rays and other information to help with diagnosis and follow-up care.

Since 1995, UI researchers have studied how telemedicine -- the electronic transmission of medical information and services from one place to another -- can benefit Iowa communities. Their partnership with the Department of Corrections marks a new direction for UI telemedicine research.

"Telemedicine has great potential as a statewide resource, providing rural physicians with access to information and enabling Iowans and their doctors to confer with specialists at distant sites," says Dr. Michael Kienzle, associate professor of internal medicine and associate dean for clinical affairs at the UI College of Medicine. "Working with the Department of Corrections, we will continue to discover uses for efficient, cost-effective telemedicine services."

Loeffelholz notes that nearly half of inmate trips to the UI are follow-up -- or recall -- visits, an area where investigators hope to make the greatest reduction. "We think that once a person is known by the clinic, many recall visits can be managed by telemedicine," he says.

The initial phase of the project will focus on orthopedics, internal medicine and dermatology, the services most frequently used by inmates during the past year. Surveys administered after each consultation will assess reactions of UI and prison staff as well as patient satisfaction.