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.

Gov. George Ryan announced that 10 hospitals will 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 tele.medicine capabilities,

but through expensive and limiting T1 lines. With those lines, staff at

one hospital can't communicate with staff at another one unless a direct

cable is run between the two facilities. The new network, however, eliminates

the need for those point-to-point connections, something state officials

hope will encourage more hospitals to join, thereby promoting a more extensive

telemedicine practice.

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

hospitals, for now, will be able to use the network privileges and equip.ment

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

"There are so many benefits to the network tele.med.icine is just

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

For the program, the Illinois Department of Public Health chose hospitals

with fewer than 15 beds and patient stays averaging fewer than four days.

Ring said the plan is to bring another seven or eight hospitals into the

network by year's end.

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

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

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

Maine and Alaska have telehealth systems.

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