Dr. J. Timothy Leavell has been aware for some time that Idaho families have had go to great lengths – literally – to come see him at his office.
“I began to think, first of all, about the people coming from McCall,” said Dr. Leavell, whose Meridian office is part of the St. Luke’s Children’s Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities. “They would drive two hours for a 30-minute follow-up visit. And you stop and think, ‘That doesn’t make any sense at all. That’s a huge waste of time.’”
So, for some time, Dr. Leavell has been excited about the possibility of bringing telemedicine to his clinic. But first, some legislative hurdles had to be overcome. After legislators made some changes to Idaho’s laws, Dr. Leavell was eager to take the next step with his clinic.
“We were chomping at the bit to do telemedicine, because most of the diagnosis we do is physical in nature. It’s observational,” Dr. Leavell said.
What is telemedicine? Simply stated, it’s the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology.
In other words, Dr. Leavell can now see those patients from McCall via video. He saw his first patient through telemedicine in early April, which coincidentally is Autism Awareness Month.
“It feels great to be up and running,” Dr. Leavell said. “The visits have gone smoothly, and I think the patients are pleased.”
And now that telemedicine is a reality for him, Dr. Leavell sees nothing but promise for its future.
“Your reach is expanded exponentially,” he said.
Having seen his first patients from McCall, Dr. Leavell will next turn his attention to patients in the rural areas of Southwestern Idaho – and beyond.
Kallie Penchansky, clinical program manager for Telehealth Services at St. Luke’s, said the sky is the limit for Dr. Leavell – and the whole St. Luke’s Health System.
“(Telemedicine) is beginning to happen in a number of different areas in our system,” Penchansky said.
But Penchansky said Dr. Leavell was the first pediatric specialist in the system to go live with telehealth.
“It was a banner day,” she said. “The ability to offer these services to pediatric patients and their families who are living far outside of the Treasure Valley means that these patients can be seen in a more timely manner, which very well may support a better clinical outcome. … And these families can avoid the costs and just the logistical burden of traveling with their children for many hours to see providers for a single appointment.”
Nampa businessman Paul Tierney and his wife, Richelle, have been one of those families. Their 20-year-old son, Nicholas, has autism, and Paul said his family has spent more than its share of money and travel time trying to get the best health care possible for their son.
“I’m excited for the state of Idaho to have the opportunity for better health care,” Tierney said. “With Idaho being a fairly rural state (telemedicine) could allow families to have access to more professionals and more highly qualified people.”
That has been Ron Oberleitner’s mission for years. Oberleitner and his wife, Sharon, are the parents of a 25-year-old son with autism (Robby).
“He was diagnosed at 3½,” Oberleitner said. “It should have been much earlier. But with the tools of the day and not knowing where to go when he started having issues with him as a 2-year-old, it took us a long time to get him diagnosed.
“So we were motivated early on to try to find some tools to make the process easier not only for families, but for doctors,” Oberleitner said.
The Oberleitner’s company, Behavior Imaging, has been awarded over $6 million in grants to develop telehealth solutions that can help facilitate the diagnosis or treatment of individuals with autism. Among those solutions is a series of apps that allow families to connect with doctors remotely – from their own homes.
Because of his awareness of the promise of telemedicine, the Oberleitners awarded a gift of $10,000 to St. Luke’s autism clinic. He hopes others will also step up to the plate.
“We believe in St. Luke’s, and we believe in the power of telemedicine to transform diagnosis and treatment of autism around the state,” Oberleitner said.
Penchansky, for one, believes that telemedicine will help St. Luke’s have a brighter future.
“It’s a win for patients, who will be able to receive care closer to home,” she said. “It’s a win for providers, in that they’re able to provide that care without having to travel. … We’re increasing timely patient access to medicines of all specialties. It will support a healthier overall population.”
Autism Society of Treasure Valley Spreads the Word Year-Round
April is Autism Awareness Month, and it’s certainly an important time of the year for the Autism Society of the Treasure Valley (ASTV).
On April 21, the organization conducted its annual Run for Autism, and it was the most successful run in the organization’s history.
“We don’t have all the numbers yet, but we had at least 800 people, which includes family and friends, providers, even people in the community who don’t have a direct connection to autism,” said Maria Ronan, the vice president of ASTV. “It’s continuing to grow and our presence is becoming known.”
St. Luke’s is a sponsor of the run.
“We have several community allies, and St. Luke’s is definitely a big part of that, especially the Run for Autism,” Ronan said.
ASTV was awarded funding from the St. Luke’s Community Health Improvement Fund, and Ronan said that money will go toward supporting the programs they host throughout the year.
Those events include a sensory-friendly Easter egg hunt at River Valley Elementary, Free to Be Wild at Zoo Boise and Wings for Autism, which allows people with autism to go through a mock travel day. Participants are walked through check-in, security and boarding a plane.
“It allows them to see what the process of going through the airport is like,” Ronan said. “So when their family does get a chance to travel they already know what to expect.”
While the Zoo Boise event and Wings for Autism haven’t been scheduled yet, Ronan encourages people to visit ASTV’s website and Facebook page for updates, including information about their quarterly Family Night at the Aquarium of Boise.
Ronan said a great way to learn more about her organization is to attend monthly informational meetings that are conducted at St. Luke’s Meridian on the second Monday of every month.
“People should know that we have four board members who are autistic,” Ronan said. “And they guide us on things they’ve experienced and how we can best support them in the community.”
So, yes, April is an important month for the Autism Society of the Treasure Valley. But it’s clear that the organization stays busy year-round.“We work all year to bring awareness and acceptance as far as we can reach,” Ronan said. “We’re always trying to get the message out.”
Telehealth Launches Two New Services in One Day
In early April telehealth launched two new services that will improve access to care for patients living in rural areas.
In addition to telehealth services now offered through St. Luke’s autism clinic, patients can also receive telehealth services for pediatric post-surgical follow-up care. Both services launched April 5.St. Luke’s telehealth journey began several years ago and continues to evolve. A virtual care center under construction now is expected to open later in 2018 and will serve as a medical hub for telehealth services.
Chris Langrill is a writer and copy editor for the St. Luke’s Communications and Marketing department.