On call: Grant keeps medical staff connected to patients

Tuesday, November 17, 2020
Vanessa Young, a nurse practitioner at SEMO Health Network's Sikeston medical facility, is pictured on the cell phone with a patient. SEMO Health Network recently received a grant to allow its staff to benefit from FirstNet capabilities providing better connections even during emergencies.
Submitted photo

NEW MADRID, Mo. - SEMO Health Network has a new tool in its medical kit to better serve its patients.

A primary medical, dental and behavioral health care provider for patients in Scott, Stoddard, New Madrid, Mississippi, Dunklin and Pemiscot counties, SEMO Health Network has received a grant to be among the first Missouri healthcare facilities to join FirstNet.

FirstNet is a nationwide public safety communications platform originally dedicated to first responders. Built with AT&T, in public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority, it is designed to give agencies’ communications capabilities a major boost, by providing a reliable, highly secure and “always on” connection.

Earlier this year FirstNet was expanded to include healthcare personnel.

“FirstNet helps strengthen first responders’ incident response, connecting them to the critical information they need – every day and in every emergency. During this pandemic, healthcare personnel across the nation are on the front lines, and FirstNet will enable new ways to provide healthcare, including telehealth,” said Jason Porter, senior vice president of the FirstNet Program at AT&T, in announcing the expansion.

According to Sarah Ezell, project director for SEMO Health Network, the grant is through Centene in partnership with Home State Health.

She explained the Missouri Primary Care Association was contacted by Centene which was seeking federally qualified health centers that might be eligible for the grant. The MPCA, of which SEMO Health Network is a member, recommended the local health provider.

After numerous conversations this summer and fall, SEMO Health was awarded the grant. Last week, work began to make each of SEMO Health’s facilities at Benton, Bernie, Caruthersville, East Prairie, Kennett, New Madrid and Sikeston part of FirstNet as well as SEMO Health Network’s doctors, nurses, health practitioners and other medical personnel.

“The grant pretty much paid for this technology to happen. It’s a huge win for us,” said Ezell. “Centene’s investment will enable rural practices to introduce cutting-edge telehealth techniques that will create efficiencies and help those who save lives.”

Alex Lee, IT director for SEMO Health Network, pointed out SEMO Health facilities and employees are in an area that stretches across the Bootheel from the hills above Benton to the Arkansas line. Even before the pandemic, they faced problems ranging from internet connections running slow and sometimes going down to some health workers simply having no service at all.

With COVID-19, SEMO Health Network’s providers were facing even greater challenges to reach and deliver care to patients without exposing themselves. While telemedicine is an obvious solution it is only as good as the ability to connect reliably to a network.

According to Lee, AT&T has set aside a spectrum of the cell phone network for first responders. While first responders will continue to have the highest priority on this spectrum, the recent expansion allows hospitals and primary care providers onto it.

“What this means for us is let’s say there is another shut down due to the pandemic, we need to still conduct telemedicine visits over the phone. Our providers will be able to make that call regardless of congestion on the network and with better signal strength,” Lee said.

Lee said one of SEMO Health Network’s providers lives in a rural area outside of Kennett. Prior to the implementation of FirstNet she was unable to receive a cell signal in her house.

“For her to be able to conduct a telemedicine video call or even a phone call she had to go outside, walk up her driveway and stand next to a busy highway,” Lee said. “With FirstNet she will be able to sit in her office at her house and conduct telemedicine visits that need to occur.”

Lee pointed out patients benefit from being able to easily contact their health provider. This saves patients from having to go to a hospital which in some rural areas may be an hour or more away, he added.

Also SEMO Health Network’s users can send and receive vital statistics and medical history via video, voice and data, all through their FirstNet device.

Lee and Ezell called FirstNet a game changer.

Ezell said through FirstNet patients should immediately see a difference in their telemedicine visits with the healthcare providers at SEMO Health Network.

“This is a much needed service for us, especially in our Southeast Missouri communities with continuous service issues,” she said. “ We are so thankful for Centene and Home State Health for choosing us.”

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