Mississippi emerges as a leader in telemedicine

After Hurricane Katrina, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, fully embraced telehealth to reach out to the state’s sickest, most vulnerable residents. “Mississippi didn’t have another option,” said Kristi Henderson, the university’s chief telehealth and innovation officer. Today, the state has one of the nation’s most successful telehealth programs.

Much of Mississippi’s healthcare infrastructure was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The state already struggled with chronic disease, poverty and low health literacy among its population, half of which was and still is rural.

That’s when the state, working through the University of Mississippi Medical Center, fully embraced telehealth to reach out to the sickest, most vulnerable residents. “Mississippi didn’t have another option,” said Kristi Henderson, the university’s chief telehealth and innovation officer.

Henderson, who holds a doctorate in nursing, actually started UMMC’s telehealth program for emergency medicine on a pilot basis in 2003. But service really ramped up after Katrina.

Mississippi scored a “B” on the American Telemedicine Association’s new report card for state reimbursement policy. The state actually dropped from an “A” last year due to changes in Medicaid policy, but is still considered a pace-setter in telemedicine. As we reported in February, Mississippi ” has emerged as a leader in policy and implementation of telehealth that can help address major barriers of access in the rural state.”

“Our story in Mississippi is when you clear state barriers, that’s what happens,” Henderson said at this week’s American Telemedicine Association conference in Los Angeles. Henderson then went back to Jackson, Miss., before flying to Washington to testify Thursday on rural health policy before the Senate Appropriation Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

Henderson had testified before another Senate subcommittee two weeks earlier to push for expansion of Medicare payments for telemedicine as well as for greater access to broadband Internet in rural America.

Her message for telemedicine skeptics? “We’re not changing the standard of care. It’s just a different modality,” Henderson told MedCity News.

Last fall, in partnership Intel-GE Care Innovations, UMMC brought home-based diabetes telehealth into the Mississippi River Delta region, the poorest, sickest part of the state. “We wanted to test it in one of the most challenging places,” Henderson said.

Working with Care Innovations, the university created a program for people with uncontrolled diabetes, offering daily health sessions to patients via home-based tablets. UMMC hasn’t published results yet, but the early experience has led Henderson to decide to expand the program and deploy the technology to combat other chronic diseases, she said.