Illinois throws line to small hospitals

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"Flatlining"

Illinois is giving its smallest hospitals a boost that will provide the

institutions with high-speed Internet access now and the infrastructure

to eventually practice telemedicine.

The governor recently announced that 10 hospitals would share $450,000 to

establish telemedicine capabilities. Telemedicine enables doctors and specialists

at bigger, faraway hospitals to consult on cases at rural facilities though

videoconferencing systems.

The grants will cover computers, videoconferencing equipment, infrastructure

and initial telecommunications charges as well as training for hospital

workers. The hospitals will be linked with the Illinois Century Network,

a statewide, high-speed telecommunications system created in 1999 to integrate

and expand data, voice and video communications among schools and libraries.

A handful of Illinois hospitals already have telemedicine capabilities,

but through expensive and limiting T1 lines. With those lines, a hospital

can't communicate with another one unless they run a cable straight to it.

The new network, however, eliminates the need for those point-to-point connections,

something the state hopes will encourage more hospitals to join, thereby

promoting more extensive telemedicine practice.

But because no big-city hospitals are as yet connected to the network, the

small hospitals, for now, will be able to use the network privileges and

equipment to beef up their in-house systems and for distance learning.

"There are so many benefits to the network — telemedicine is just one,''

said Mary Ring, chief of the state's Center for Rural Health.

The Illinois Department of Public Health chose hospitals for the program

that have fewer than 15 beds and patient stays that average fewer than four

days. Nine hospitals will receive more than $45,000, and one hospital received

about $30,000. Ring said the plan is to bring another seven or eight hospitals

onto the network by the end of the year.

To enable hospitals to participate in telemedicine, the state will also

allow larger nonprofit hospitals to join the network at their own expense.

Some have already expressed interest, Ring said.

Other states with isolated areas, including Oklahoma, Iowa, California,

Texas, Louisiana, Hawaii, Maine and Alaska, have telehealth systems in place.

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