AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog


Stroke Treatment Gets a Boost

Fifty years ago, the only advice medical textbooks gave physicians for someone suffering with a stroke was to put him to bed and keep him comfortable, hoping that with time, the brain would heal as best it could. For 30 years, promising techniques preceded disappointing trials. First, heparin was going to be the savior, and for most of the 70s and 80s, it almost served as a standard, but better studies eventually showed that the treatment was not just worthless, but in reality dangerous, causing more brain hemorrhages than no treatment at all. Later, drugs that were intended to clear out “free radicals” were going to save the ischemic penumbra, part of viable brain tissue around a central core of dead cells, but all studies showed that either the medication didn’t get to the target, didn’t work, or could even be toxic to the brain.

In the mid 90s, tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), long used for heart attack victims to break up the clots inside arteries of the heart, was shown to be effective in doing the same in arteries of the brain. For the first time, physicians had something to offer patients that actually made a difference. About a third of patients who received TPA had better three month outcomes than those that did not. This success rate was quite good, but patients with severe strokes still did not respond as well because, in most cases, thrombi in the large arteries were not effectively dissolved.

Only in the last few years have studies been done to consider the effectiveness of a thrombectomy, the process of physically pulling out a thrombus inside an artery in the brain or neck, The early devices available to physicians are fairly good at the task, but a substantial number of patients continue to suffer from residual blockages of the arteries following the procedure.

A report of clinical trials using two new types of thrombectomy devices, called Solitaire and Trevo Retriever, show both of these new devices as being up to five times more effective than their predecessors in opening up arteries. Advances this drastic are rare in medicine, but physicians should be optimistic about the potential for these instruments in improving outcomes. Provided that patients can have access to skilled practitioners in time, within eight hours or sooner, the treatment of stroke may be about to enter a dramatic new phase.

Stroke is the most serious disabling condition in adults, resulting in hundreds of thousands of permanent injuries and deaths every year. This decade may witness the greatest advances in the history of stroke treatment. There are still further trials to run, but with these exciting new prospects, the importance of stroke neurologists like the doctors of ACT being present in every emergency room, either in person or by remote presence, cannot be overstated.



Healthcare Reform and the Impact on Telemedicine

The recent announcement of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in favor of upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) has prompted widespread speculation among citizens of the US about the future of healthcare.  Notwithstanding the politics associated with the decision, the ruling carries significant impact for citizens in terms of access to preventive care and insurance coverage.

Telemedicine providers are heavily impacted by the ruling as well. The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) believes that it will positively impact the development of telemedicine, mHealth, and other remote technologies, citing 4 main reasons; the announcement reduces hesitation to invest in telemedicine technologies, protects existing investments in telemedicine, bolster’s telemedicine’s role in many healthcare programs, and strengthens telemedicine’s fundamental value proposition.

As healthcare enters its next era, telemedicine offers a model for streamlining care coordination and improving patient outcomes. In the period of time between healthcare reform being codified into law and the Supreme Court ruling to uphold it, there had been a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the healthcare industry implementing major changes in practice, as it would cause complications should the law be overturned, but the affirmation clears up many of the primary legal and cost concerns, opening the door for telemedicine to address logistical and financial pain points for both providers and patients.

Ultimately, telemedicine fits snugly into the PPACA. For ACO’s needing to include services unavailable in their area, a remote presence physician will be drastically most cost-effective than hiring a full time local MD. Telemedicine also helps alleviate costs for underinsured or completely uninsured patients as well as alleviating strain on the healthcare system caused by unnecessary emergency visits through improvements in preventive care. The court’s decision, while sparking some controversy on other fronts, is the latest step forward in the rapid evolution of telemedicine as a powerful solution for a multitude of healthcare issues facing Americans.



The Personal Side of Acute Stroke Intervention

Mr. Rigby was found unresponsive, gazing to the right and unable to move his left side. Just moments ago, his nurse had seen the 91 year old awake in his hospital bed preparing himself for discharge from the hospital. Though the hospital lacked a neurologist, it had invested in telemedicine services. Immediate assessment of his acute neurological deficits would determine whether treatment with tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), a clot-busting medication, or even thrombectomy (direct mechanical extraction of the clot) was appropriate. If performed within a very short time window, tPA or thrombectomy would open arteries and prevent progressive death of brain cells. However, it could also lead to hemorrhage, bleeding into the brain that could be devastating and even life-threatening. Thus, the teleneurologist was charged with not simply recognizing Mr. Rigby’s stroke symptoms, but also those factors which make the risk greater than the benefit.

As the AcuteCare Telemedicine physician on call, I was at the bedside within minutes via remote presence technology. The evidence; left hemiparesis, left visual field loss and inability to speak, made it clear; Mr. Rigby had sustained a large right hemisphere stroke. A large artery, the MCA, was blocked by clot. His nurse knew the exact time of symptom onset. Without treatment he may have survived, but it was likely he would not walk or talk. He met every inclusion criteria for tPA. Unfortunately, Mr. Rigby was not a good candidate. He had undergone a surgical procedure just the day before, his anticoagulation had been restarted that day and his platelets were very low. At the age of 91 years with these risk factors, the likelihood of serious hemorrhage was too great. As I informed the family members that had filled the hospital hallways, a look of desperation filled their eyes. His daughter stated, “This man is worth-saving.” Remembering my Hippocratic Oath, my immediate response in this case was, “I am certain he’s worth saving, but nobody is worth harming.”

Then I remembered this “case” was her father. I asked her to tell me more about Mr. Rigby. A picture of a family patriarch emerged. He was still vigorous, taking walks daily. He was driving. Indeed, he still routinely played 9 holes of golf. But what she told me next illustrated the shortcoming of using population-based inclusion and exclusion criteria as the sole determinant of risk-benefit for an individual. Mr. Rigby was the caretaker of his 89 year old disabled and blind wife. Without the ability to walk and speak not only Mr. Rigby would suffer. I made an immediate call to the Marcus Stroke Center at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The Marcus Center stroke physician agreed the criteria for invasive intervention suggested a high risk, but Mr. Rigby would be given a chance because the potential for benefit was irrefutable. Within a few hours the clot was extracted. Mr. Rigby had an opened artery with full reperfusion. His symptoms improved with only residual left arm weakness. Though speaking slowly, his good humor was immediately apparent. A family had their patriarch back.



Affordable Healthcare, On the Go

With the continually rising costs associated with healthcare in the U.S., two new reports suggest the market for telemedicine is poised to grow more than threefold within the next decade thanks to advances in wireless technologies in medical applications.

Mobile technology has paved the way for devices and infrastructure that are capable of mitigating healthcare costs by billions of dollars annually by reducing unnecessary hospitalizations and improving diagnostic and treatment efficiency. These telehealth solutions, many centered around wireless communications technologies, also help improve overall quality and timeliness of care administered, removing the traditional boundaries of distance and time in bringing patients and their doctors together over the web. Telemedicine ensures that patients receive the right care in the right setting to streamline the consultation process and fight excessive costs.

Telehealth has for some time now been proven as an effective means of delivering quality care, particularly to patients in underserved rural areas. Looking towards the future, practitioners are constantly gaining access to more powerful tools and increased mobility, reason to believe that telemedicine will extend more effective, more affordable healthcare to patients everywhere.

Already mobile technologies are steadily revolutionizing healthcare in a multitude of ways. In addition to patient consultation via communications platforms, the latest applications available to practitioners on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other wireless devices can also help manage patient records, and encourage collaboration with other expert physicians.

Trends towards better technology and increased access to mobile platforms are fueling the rapid growth of telemedicine, which ultimately benefits both patients and providers. Just as mobile phones have given people the power to stay connected without the traditional landline, telemedicine is helping patients everywhere keep in touch with the quality care they deserve.