A new addition to St. Peter’s River’s Edge Hospital medical services line-up may make it easier to treat stroke patients and could cut down on the number of patients that are unnecessarily transferred to other hospitals.

wDirector of Nurses at River’s Edge Paula Meskan said a new program sponsored by Allina Health relies on a Remote Presence RP-Lite robot connects stoke patients with expert consultants and physicians, providing real-time, around-the clock neurological assessments.

It’s called telehealth.

“What telehealth really allows us to do is, in our case, is access specialty physicians,” Meskan said. “This will allow us to link up to a neurologist, specifically for stroke care.”

Most regional and rural hospitals like River’s Edge cannot afford to have a neurologist on staff and many do not have them on call during the night or on weekends. Using the telestroke program, staff at River’s Edge will be able see and interact with an on-call neurologist in Minneapolis.

The robot, which staff have affectionately nicknamed “Sheldon,” is rolled into the patient’s room and placed at the end of their bed. Staff make a call to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and the on-call physician responds. The physician is “beamed” into the room and appears on the robot’s remote-controlled screen.

Using remote controls, the physician can move the screen and its built in cameras closer to the patient and zoom in to look at their eyes and face. An electronic stethoscope allows them to listen to the patient’s heart and a connected phone allows the doctor to converse with the patient more privately.

Meskan said the hospital hasn’t gotten a chance to try out the robot yet, but hopes it will improve patient outcomes. As with any medical emergency, Meskan said, the faster a patient receives proper care, the better the chances are for a successful recovery.

This is especially true for stroke patients; restoring blood flow to the brain minimizes the potential for long-term damage or impairment.

Being able to remotely consult a neurologist could be especially helpful in deciding when to give a patient clot-busting medicines, Meskan said. Such medication is most effective if given within three hours of having a stroke and can only upon be administered upon a neurologist order.

This is challenging when there is no neurologist on call and the patient needs to be transferred to a larger hospital. Now, Meskan said, they may be able to give patients the medication before they are transferred, improving their overall outcome.

On the flip side, patients that may not be having stroke could be spared a trip. Meskan said occasionally patients are sent to other hospitals unnecessarily, but that without a neurologist’s diagnosis medical personnel will err on the side of caution.

“You know sometimes I think we do send patients that don’t need to be sent,” Meskan said. “We’re hoping we can eliminate unnecessary transfers.”

The neurologist can also recommend treatment for other conditions that may be mistaken for strokes, further improving patient outcomes.

According to a 2012 study performed by the American Heart Association, the adoption of telehealth programs has been increasing steadily and there are as many as or more than 56 telestroke programs active in the U.S.

In most cases, the main purpose of the program is to provide emergency room consultation. Many hospitals adopt the programs in order to improve patient outcomes, but in some rural areas lack of high-speed Internet make it difficult to adopt.

River’s Edge, a member of the Minnesota Stroke Program, was approached by Allina Health in 2012 and asked if they’d like to take part in Allina’s telehealth program. Because the robot itself is owned by Allina Health, Meskan said the hospital is able to provide the additional consultations for free.

Meskan said in the future, the hospital may offer more telehealth programs and is currently considering enrolling in a mental health program that would work in a similar fashion.

“It would allow us to have a trained mental health professional do an analysis of our patients,” Meskan said. “That one won’t be free.”

Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies

Reach reporter Jessica Bies at 507-931-8568 or follow her on Twitter.com @sphjessicabies