In February of 2014 Nancy Lowman woke up with a sharp pain in her neck and distorted vision. After feeling nauseous and with symptoms continuing, Nancy decided to go to a nearby hospital in Hickory, NC. Staff there thought she was having a stroke, but without a neurologist on site, they weren’t sure how to proceed.
Luckily, the medical center was part of the North Carolina telestroke network. Staff were able to virtually connect, via a robot, with a neurologist 60 miles away at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, who diagnosed Nancy with a stroke and prescribed a clot-busting drug. Nancy walked out of the hospital 48 hours later.
Last month Nancy and her nurse Danielle traveled to Washington, DC to tell their story and urge Congress to make telestroke care more accessible.
What is telestroke?
Stroke telemedicine, now commonly referred to as “telestroke,” is the use of videoconferencing to give urgent care to those having a stroke. Specialists are provided with timely data to assist clinicians at the bedside in stroke-related decision making for patients at hospitals that do not have a stroke neurologist available around the clock.
Time is of the essence in treating stroke: For a typical stroke patient, 1.9 million brain cells die for each minute that a stroke goes untreated. Research shows that the quicker a patient receives treatment with the clot-busting drug, the better the odds of a full recovery.
In Nancy’s case, by using telestroke technology, a neurologist at another hospital was able to quickly diagnose her condition and guide Nancy’s doctors and nurses in administering the clot-busting medication. Nancy and her nurse are convinced that if her treatment had been delayed, she would not have walked out of the hospital just two days later without any lasting disability.
In simple terms, telestroke improves patient lives by preventing serious, long-term disability.
Why doesn’t every hospital utilize telestroke technology?
Current federal law states that Medicare will only reimburse hospitals who perform a telestroke consultation if the patient is located in a rural hospital. However, over 90% of strokes occur in suburban and urban areas. Nancy’s hospital in Hickory is not considered by Medicare to be rural so the stroke experts who diagnosed her from Winston-Salem are not paid for the care they provide to Medicare beneficiaries having a stroke. This lack of reimbursement is a barrier for the majority of Medicare patients needing timely telestroke care.
What can be done to increase access to telestroke care?
The easiest solution is to allow Medicare to reimburse the hospital for a telestroke consultation, regardless of where the patient lives. Not only would this increase access to telestroke and improve patient outcomes, but it would also save money by reducing the need for more costly inpatient rehabilitation or long-term care.
How can you help?
There is a bill in Congress call the FAST (Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine) Act. This bill would expand Medicare’s coverage of telestroke services. Right now we need as many lawmakers as possible to cosponsor this bill to show support for increasing telestroke access. Ask you members of Congress to cosponsor the FAST Act today!