Cutting edge health tech making a difference in rural Alabama, but funding is uncertain

Cutting edge health tech making a difference in rural Alabama, but funding is uncertain

By Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a new Alabama-based health technology is taking telemedicine to a new level by changing the way doctors communicate with other doctors, clinicians and patients.

But, with its allocation of CARES Act funding spent, the future of its existence in rural Alabama is in doubt.

Vital Engine, a software application developed by Abel Healthcare Enterprises, allows doctors to communicate and share information in real time, leading to faster diagnoses and cutting down on unnecessary patient trips to major medical centers to see specialists.

Dr. Philip Johnson, a medical doctor and software engineer from Selma who developed Vital Engine, describes the impact on a patient in a rural area who might need a major procedure.

“Let’s say a patient in Selma comes in and gets a echocardiogram (EKG) for possible heart problems. That data, which are massive files by the way, would be put on a CD and FedExed to UAB or some other major medical center with a cardiologist and it might be a week or longer before a phone call happens to talk about options,” he said.

That lag time is frustrating for patients and doctors alike, Johnson said, and can lead to confusion over dated information at the point of care.

“As somebody who is thinking about doing a doing a procedure, you really want the benefit of seeing the images… That’s kind of how this got started. I used to think, we can put big videos on YouTube, why can’t we put up a heart cauterization or an echocardiogram and view it that way?”

Now, with the Vital Engine software, those images can be sent in real time to a specialist who can analyze them and determine whether a procedure might be necessary before the patient leaves the facility, Johnson said.

Typically, telemedicine or telehealth refers to doctors taking appointments with patients via video conference or even over the phone. Now, with this software, physicians can collaborate with other physicians for second opinions or suggestions through simply communicating.

The software had previously been in use in major health care systems like UAB Medicine, St. Vincent’s, Children’s of Alabama and Nashville-based HCA, among others. But those giants of the medical industry can afford such specialized technology and the support that comes with it. Most rural hospitals and clinics, already struggling financially before the pandemic, cannot.

As part of Gov. Kay Ivey’s focus on rural healthcare amid the pandemic, Vital Engine received $1.3 million from¬†Alabama’s allotment of federal CARES Act funding to build out the network to rural practitioners. Johnson and his team successfully brought 53 rural hospitals, 117 rural health clinics, 231 nursing homes and the state’s 4 Veterans Affairs hospitals.

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

Dr. Greg Price, a cardiologist in rural Andalusia described the software as a “game changer” for his practice. Angela Mefcallf, a nurse and valve coordinator at Shelby Baptist called it a “passport for physicians” into sometimes hard to navigate patient information. Dr. Raymond Fernandez, a cardiologist at Marshall Medical Center said the “ability to exchange information and obtain expert opinion has removed many of the¬†roadblocks that existed in getting our patients the higher levels of care or opinions often needed in critical situations.”

The original plan was to use CARES Act money to fund the rural network for five years. However, among the strict requirements Congress put on the funding was that it must be spent before Dec. 30. With that one-time money now expired, Johnson is pursuing more long-term funding options through the state.

That could mean a contract through the Alabama Department of Public Health or a direct allocation in the General Fund budget that Ivey and state lawmakers will deliberate in the upcoming legislative session.

Abel Healthcare Enterprises has offered a proposal to Ivey’s office.

A spokeswoman for the governor deferred questions on the subject to the Alabama Department of Public Health, which did not have a comment specific to Vital Engine, but did acknowledge the growing role or telemedicine in the state.

“We have something special here, something that really hasn’t been done anywhere else in the country, and it is helping people in rural Alabama. I’m from rural Alabama and I have a heart for rural Alabama. I’m glad we made this work with the CARES Act funding, but the benefits go far beyond COVID.

“It works financially for systems that can afford it, but for these rural hospitals, it’s hard to make that expense. That’s where the state can help.”

The legislative session begins Tuesday. Finance Director Kelly Butler is expected to release Ivey’s budget proposals the same day.