UC Merced eyes telemedicine

The University of California at Merced is looking for a site for a telemedicine center in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where many disadvantaged patients lack access to medical specialists.

Videoconferencing equipment in the center will enable a patient, sitting in an examination room in the valley, to be evaluated by a specialist 80 to 90 miles away at the University of California at San Francisco or the University of California at Davis. Supporters of the project hope valley-based specialists will offer their services.

The proposed center is part of the San Joaquin Valley eHealth Network Project, which aims to establish four centers in a region including the valley, between Stockton and Bakersfield, and the Sierra foothills. One of the centers would be positioned to serve patients in Stanislaus County, San Joaquin County and northern Merced County, said Maria Pallavicini, UC Merced's dean of natural sciences.

University officials want to put the centers in health care facilities serving large numbers of uninsured patients.

The intent is to work with clinics that are committed to telemedicine. "We want to work with these clinics and make it a part of their care package," Pallavicini said.

UC Merced officials announced the project at a news conference Wednesday. The funding comes from grants totaling almost $1 million, including $500,000 from AT&T, $200,000 from the California Emerging Technology Fund and $250,000 from the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley.

Project leaders have a list of 100 potential sites and plan to have the four centers designated in the spring and opened by September 2008. Participating specialists will be given some compensation on top of their billings the first year, Pallavicini said.

The goal is to broaden access to health care for people living in the valley's farming towns, which may be 30 miles from the nearest hospital, and improve access to specialists for the urban poor in cities such as Modesto and Fresno.

It may be a challenge to locate the centers so they can benefit the rural and urban populations.

"Hopefully, we can set it up so it's sustainable for the clinics," Pallavicini said. "We want to select clinics that have the patient base to justify putting the equipment there."

The telemedicine centers could serve patients who don't need sophisticated diagnostic procedures to find out what ails them. Among the most likely candidates would be patients needing the services of a dermatologist, rheumatologist, urologist or psychiatrist.

For example, pictures of a patient's skin lesion could be taken in the center and then sent over broadband lines to a dermatologist. The specialist would read the images and then send back the results.

Dr. Eric Ramos, medical director of the Del Puerto Health Center in Patterson, said a telemedicine center could benefit the clinic's patients if it was situated on the West Side. Patients with heart disease and back injuries will still have to travel to see specialists, but a center could work well for people with skin rashes or rheumatoid arthritis, he said.

"It would be nice to get a consultation and have a rheumatologist guide the therapy and then have the patient follow up," Ramos said. "Many specialists are happy to see patients, but I think the biggest problem is get- ting the patients to them."

Besides using interactive technology, the electronic health centers will be equipped to store and forward patient information. The centers also could be used for physician and staff training and educational opportunities for high school and college students in the region.

Pallavicini said the project is one of the building blocks for bringing a medical school to UC Merced. University staff are preparing a detailed proposal and economic impact report to be presented to the UC Board of Regents in a few weeks.

The proposal centers on creating academic classes for the first two years of a four-year medical school, then sending students to valley medical facilities for hands-on experience.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.