The East Carolina (ECU) University Telemedicine program has been in continuous operation since its inception in 1992, making it one of the longest running clinical telemedicine operations in the country. The Telemedicine Center provides clinical telehealth services and support, conducts telehealth research, consults and oversees new and existing statewide telehealth networks and openly educates health care providers and the public on the utility of telehealth.
The program's first telemedicine consults were with North Carolina's Department of Correction's hospital in Raleigh, NC. Over the subsequent twenty-three years, services and infrastructure grew and evolved through the support of the ECU, the Brody School of Medicine, many state and federal grants and contracts and Vidant Medical Systems formerly University Health Systems. Along the way, the ECU telemedicine program achieved national recognition through participation in the American Telemedicine Association's leadership (both as board members and Special Interest Group Chairs), receiving telehealth-related grant and contract awards, and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles. In 2009, the University of North Carolina General Administration once again renewed the program's status as "Center of Excellence in Research" which it was initially awarded in 1999. The ECU Telemedicine Center was recognized as one of the "Top 10" telemedicine programs by Telehealth Magazine.
A simple description of the ECU Telemedicine Center's vision is to apply telehealth and IT technologies, systems, principles and practices to enable the provision of health care where it's needed, when it's needed. Telehealth at ECU has grown and evolved since its initial implementation in 1992. Several improvements have been demonstrated along the way, including access, patient convenience and compliance, continuity of care, as well as decreased patient and physician travel time. Strengthening relationships of referral providers and patterns have also become stronger and timelier. Many challenges still remain, including reimbursement under traditional payers, “rural” status of patient site under the Center for Medicare/Medicaid criteria, startup cost for the telehealth provider site, lack of healthcare professional exposure and training, a common directory and operational issues in some specialties. Nonetheless, telehealth use is growing annually in the U.S., and the diffusion of telehealth in clinical practice is further evidenced by professional organizations' development of policies, standards, and guidelines for telehealth. The early evidence suggests telehealth's efficacy in many clinical applications, but more rigorous research must be conducted and documented. Generally, patient satisfaction with telehealth is high, and provider satisfaction is more moderate. However, with the racing evolving technology, provider interest has heightened and grown rapidly.
Telehealth will be a critical part of our effort to improve the health of the region's citizens and prepare the next generation of health professionals with contemporary skills and knowledge. The future of telehealth will likely represent myriad challenges and opportunities. As evidenced by the collective experience and research with the Center and other programs, telehealth can make a significant impact on the delivery of health care services to those who have usually received less than adequate care. These underserved individuals will continue to reap telehealth's benefits. Currently, we are finally experiencing the next generation of telehealth systems and services focusing on improving the productivity of clinical staff, and quality, access, and convenience for all health consumers.