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Mono County could lead the way in digital medicine, technology

November 9, 2012

A doctor consults with another doctor via digital technology, with the patient also in the room. The patient and consulting doctor are separated by thousands of miles, erasing the time and the many costs of travel.

Imagine your 85-year-old father living at home alone, but monitored 24 hours a day with sensitive devices that let his doctor or caretaker—or you—know in real time if he’s fallen or had a heart attack.

Imagine a prisoner in the Mono County Jail who falls sick with strep throat and needs to be transported to Mammoth for treatment, requiring a sheriff’s escort, paramedics, security—everything paid for by taxpayers.

Imagine if the doctor could be “beamed” to the jail directly, interview the prisoner, monitor him or her with digital sensors that can then be read by the doctor, who then prescribes the best course of treatment for the prisoner—all without the prisoner leaving the jail.

There would be no need for a sheriff’s escort, security, or an overnight stay in Mammoth. The opportunity for an escaped prisoner will be eradicated, there would be no massive bill to the taxpayer, and the same compassionate standard of care would still be performed that the American system promises even to its prisoners.

Emerging digital technologies are now erasing 1,000-mile distances in a split second by bringing people together in a way that goes far beyond simple Facetime digital image sharing.

It will take three things: a video screen, some kind of electronic monitoring device—for heart rate, blood sugar, tumor imaging and an infinite number of other options—and a receiver; a doctor, patient, team of cancer specialists, etc.

Such is the world of the what is being called “telemedicine” and Mono County—little, rural, geographically-challenged Mono County—could well stand on the cutting edge of these new technologies as early as next year.

The most sophisticated applications of telemedicine will be at county resident’s fingertips when the massive Digital 395 project is completed. The new, high-speed broadband fiber project gives the Eastern Sierra the broadband capacity of the biggest cities in the world — a capacity that private developer CEO Michael Ort said will be enough to last for a decade.

The costs of installing monitoring and imaging devices in hospitals, jails and private homes are real, but they are not prohibitive. The massive, $101 million project was funded almost entirely by the federal government under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and that gives Mono County an unprecedented opportunity to not only enter the 21st century, but lead it.
If we so choose.

“We need to take advantage of it,” said Mono County District 2 Supervisor Duane “Hap” Hazard Tuesday.
“We could be here within five years, but if we don’t push and drive this forward, we will fall behind again.”
Hazard has been a tireless, passionate advocate for Digital 395 since the project was first proposed almost four years ago.

The fiber lines are being put in place this week, stretching from Mojave to Reno. The project has to be completed by July 2013, and everything is on schedule according to Ort.

But Hazard is leaving office at the end of December, after losing the last election to incoming supervisor Fred Stump. On Tuesday, he pleaded with the county supervisors to not let all his work and all the possibilities be lost.

“It’s not just telemedicine, it’s tourism and agriculture and marketing—it’s all of these that can be transformed by this,” Hazard said.

Geography has been the Eastern Sierra’s greatest boon—and greatest burden. Long distances between people make providing services, entertainment, and business needs far more expensive per person than a compact urban area would be.

Digital 395 erases distance, topography, and exorbitant costs in a second, leaving the Eastern Sierra’s landscape and rural nature—its greatest asset—intact.

It is a crime to not take advantage of the opportunity, Hazard said.

“Right now, we are transporting our veterans 180 miles to Reno for an appointment at the VA hospital every time they need something. Telemedicine would allow them to stay here. The social costs, to them and to their families, would be cut drastically. Children can be monitored for SID in their cribs, our local hospitals can send and receive information and images and expert advice in minutes instead of weeks.”

A cancer patient has to travel to Reno or Los Angeles just for a session with his or her physician, he said. Telemedicine can bring an entire team of doctors to the patient’s bedside, cutting the financial and emotional costs immeasurably.

“I can see the advantages, say for the public safety issues,” said Larry Johnston, noting the county has a full time IT staffer, Nate Greenberg, assigned to oversee Digital 395 implementation. He acknowledged that it is the supervisors, however, who have the political clout—and responsibility—to make things happen, if they believe in the value of the project.

“I was partly successful because I was a cheerleader,” Hazard said about the Digital 395 project. “I pushed for the grants and the personal relationships I made in Sacramento were critical. It takes years to develop those. There is nothing on the horizon that has the possibility of changing the lives of everyday citizens like this does. If we don’t stay on top of it, we may never catch up to the world.”

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