A Prescription for Rural South Dakota

By Rep. Kristi Noem

Our son Booker was pretty sick when he was little. There were a number of times when Bryon and I had to have the conversation: “It’s midnight and something’s not right again. Do we take him to the hospital? Do we go now? Do we wait until morning?  It’s not like there’s a hospital around the corner.”
I assume many parents, particularly those in rural South Dakota, have had to ask those questions. It’s not always an easy call to make, especially when the roads are icy and temperatures have dipped below zero. But with recent advances in South Dakota’s telehealth options, these conversations may become a thing of the past.
Already today, families can see a doctor by just turning on their phones.  Both Avera and Sanford Health, for instance, offer smartphone apps that let you connect instantly with a physician who can help parents determine how serious that fever is and what can be done about it.  If only they had that when our kids were little!
Perhaps even more incredibly, telehealth programs operating out of South Dakota are giving many local clinics a medical upgrade, shrinking the distance between you and state-of-the-art care.
At the push of a button, your hometown doctor can connect to an experienced emergency physician, an ICU care team, a pharmacist, even specialists in the areas of cardiology or diabetes.  Through the use of two-way video feeds – much like you would use FaceTime or Skype – and specialized telehealth instruments, a doctor in Sioux Falls can have access to every bit of data being collected in the exam room.
With this information, they can talk your local physician through a crisis that they may not typically deal with or maybe just serve as a second set of eyes to help make sure you’re getting the best care possible.
I had the opportunity to tour Avera’s telehealth headquarters earlier this year. There were a few dozen computer stations that were staffed by accomplished physicians – many with more than two decades of experience. Each station was lined with four high-definition screens where the specialists could see everything from a patient’s vital stats to a real-time video feed of an operation they were counseling a local physician on. In that room, we saw high-quality health care being delivered across the Midwest to even the smallest of rural clinics. Sanford Health offers many of the same options through a similar program.
A growing number of health care providers in South Dakota are being assisted by telehealth professionals like this. The Avera site I visited in Sioux Falls services 235 sites across the Midwest alone and claims to have touched the lives of approximately 790,000 patients – from young families to Medicare recipients.
I never considered a life where Bryon and I weren’t raising our kids in rural South Dakota.  We saw so much value in what you learn by growing up this way. We’ve always loved it and I know many families in South Dakota feel the same way. Still, small health care providers are struggling to stay afloat, making it more difficult to attract families to small towns.
I’m hopeful new technologies can change this, which is why I’ll be fighting to make sure folks in Washington, D.C., understand why that’s so important that we support telehealth programs. It’s worth the investment. After all, telehealth may just be the prescription we need to bridge the gap between rural America and state-of-the-art medical care.

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