The speech pathology department at Waldo County General Hospital has received Training Program Accreditation from the American Telemedicine Association — and is only the fourth institution in the United States to receive that accreditation.

But there is one big difference between the other three institutions and WCGH’s speech pathology department: WCGH is the only one that allows speech therapists to work from their offices with patients in their own homes on their own computers with a $29 web cam. The other three institutions have programs that often involve a patient going to a nearby clinic to work with a provider in a far-away large medical center.

“Other telemedicine services are not usually web-based…they use expensive specialized equipment. That’s why an Internet-based approach using available computers in peoples’ homes is a game changer,” said Michael Towey, director of WCGH’s speech pathology department.

He expects other speech therapists will be interested in obtaining the accredited training program (a 300-page digitized curriculum) that his department will soon offer to other professionals.

In September 2008, Towey provided speech therapy to a teacher and softball coach in Fort Kent from Towey’s office in Belfast. The teacher was suffering from vocal cord lesions and a voice disorder that threatened to end her teaching career. After purchasing a $29 web cam, instead of traveling the 250 miles from Fort Kent, the teacher was able to receive voice therapy in her classroom, with no lost work time or travel expenses.

When the teacher’s insurance company refused to pay for the care, Towey went to the Legislature with a bill to require health insurance coverage for telemedicine. The testimony of Towey and others in MaineHealth focused on the efficiency of telemedicine, especially the improved access to services for those in rural areas and the cost savings.

When the bill passed, Maine became the eighth state in the nation to require insurance companies to pay for telemedicine services. Towey has since completed a study showing that MaineCare is saving $3,000 a month by using telemedicine to treat children with vocal cord problems who were previously believed to have asthma. Instead of purchasing medication and inhalers and making expensive trips to the emergency room, these children are being treated in one or two telemedicine visits from their own homes.

Towey says that while many people are initially skeptical about telemedicine services, “we’re finding telemedicine services are as good, or better, than traditional in-office treatment.” In the comfort and convenience of their own homes, patients are getting the same treatment as if they traveled to the office, which is often a long distance away.

For example, last year one of his therapists was working with a child who lived in Camden. When the child and his family moved to Belgium, she was able to use telemedicine to continue his treatment.

The training accreditation has led to a number of new challenges for Towey and his staff, including:

• Teaching a three-credit graduate course for speech pathologists with the University of Maine on telemedicine (the first such course in the country);

• Traveling to Ohio State University, which has the largest speech pathology department in the country, to train professors in how to implement the curriculum written to receive this accreditation;

• Conducting a half-day training at the American Telemedicine Association annual international symposium in San Diego on how to do web-based tele-rehabilitation for speech, occupational, and physical therapists;

• Presenting to the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders on telepractice competencies;

• In the future, offering three or four training sessions a year in Belfast to people from all over the country based on the accredited training program.

But the bottom line for the speech language pathologists at WCGH is the desire to “put patients first” and to be able to continue to offer quality services to the people who need help with speech, voice, or swallowing problems. Telemedicine provides the technology to do that with both quality and efficiency.

WCGH’s speech pathology department joins the Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network, the Arizona Telemedicine Program, and the Academic Information Systems and Center of Health and Technology Telemedicine Education Programs at the UCDavis Health System in Sacramento, Calif. as the only accredited training organizations in the United States.

aldo County General Hospital speech department ears major accreditation