WALLA WALLA, WA - A letter from a local family has led to a new telemedicine program at Providence St. Mary Medical Center that will give seriously ill infants and children access to the kinds of specialists previously only available in metropolitan areas.
The program will benefit dozens of infants and children a year. It began with a letter and gift from Jared and Kristina Burns of Walla Walla after they went through one of the more frightening things parents can experience – having an ill child air lifted out for specialized care. That event prompted the family to write a letter to Providence St. Mary Medical Center suggesting a telemedicine solution to advance access to specialized care for infants and children during medical emergencies.
Providence St. Mary took the Burns’ telemedicine suggestion to heart. The medical center already was using telemedicine to beam in specialists for emergency treatment of stroke, critically ill adults and to provide psychiatric consultations. It took over a year and a half to put all the pieces in place, but Providence St. Mary has become a pilot site to bring telemedicine neonatologists and pediatric intensivists to Walla Walla.
In the past, the Providence medical team caring for a critically ill child would consult with distant specialists over the phone. Now, through the telemedicine robot, the specialist can see the patient and interact with the medical team and family. That same specialist will care for the child if he or she is transported to Sacred Heart.
“This can be a very scary time for the families, particularly if they have a brand new baby. This service provides the patients and families the opportunity to see and speak to the provider who will be responsible for their child’s care if they are transferred to Sacred Heart for a higher level of care. It is significant,” said Cass Bilodeau, Region Director of Outreach and Telemedicine for Kadlec Regional Medical Center and Providence St. Mary Medical Center.
Walla Walla is not large enough to support specialists like neonatologists or pediatric intensivists. In an average month, two to three infants and children needing these specialists during medical emergencies are transported out to large medical centers. It can cost up to $25,000 to airlift a critically ill child from Walla Walla. In some cases, the new program may eliminate the need for a transfer, although that is not the specific intent. It is more to ensure the medical team has specialized assistance to provide the best care possible and to decide whether the child should be transferred. Telemedicine neonatologists and pediatric intensivists also provide vital guidance in those instances where a child needs specialized care, but cannot be airlifted out immediately due to due to extreme weather conditions or other issues.
“This supports the care the child needs,” said Dr. Christopher Hall, Chief Medical Officer at Providence St. Mary and a pediatrician. “It also supports the pediatricians here. The pediatricians in Walla Walla operate at a very high level, but there are very complex, sometimes rare, conditions that require specialists, such as a baby born with an unusual abnormality.”
As the program was being launched, the Burns Family also stepped forward with a donation to fund the program.
“Our family’s desire to do something stems from our feeling of helplessness with our own children needing specialty care,” Jared Burns said. "St. Mary provides good care, but we didn’t have the specialty care. Had (telemedicine) been available, I think our children might have been able to stay in Walla Walla.”
The telemedicine neonatologists and pediatric intensivists are from Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital and MedNax in Spokane. They are available 24 hours a day to consult with the local medical team in emergencies.
“This gives us considerable bench strength,” Dr. Hall said. “And it all started because this family wrote us a very thoughtful letter with a realistic solution. We listened, and made it happen.”
Providence St. Mary Medical Center, a 142-bed regional hospital located in Walla Walla, Wash., is among the largest employers in Walla Walla County. The Providence Medical Group is the largest group of primary care providers and specialists in the Walla Walla area.
Providence St. Mary Foundation is a 501c3 supporting programs and services for Providence St. Mary Medical Center through donor support. For more information, visit www.providence.org/stmaryfoundation.