Over the last few years, MUSC’s Center for Telehealth has grown by leaps and bounds, offering everything from stroke care and mental health counseling to pediatric critical care teleconsulting and tele-ICU assistance. Their network extends not only to hospitals, but also to a growing number of schools, prisons and, increasingly, patients in their homes.
Now, thanks to a $1.26 million-dollar grant from The Duke Endowment, the hospital system is offering their advanced palliative care services to other hospitals in the state in the hopes of better serving patients everywhere.
The grant proposal came about, says Lauren Seidenschmidt, the program’s manager, because MUSC CEO Pat Cawley tasked the palliative care team with developing a project that would make a statewide impact.
“We want to do hospital-to-hospital visits where community and rural hospitals that might not have palliative care are able to call us and get our help on their patients that need our services,” she explains. “And we're able to help that patient without the patient having to travel to Charleston to get good palliative care.
MUSC sees the initiative as complementing, rather than replacing, the care that patients are receiving in their home hospitals.
“The goal is really to work with their own providers at the bedside to help them think of ways to help with pain or symptom management, helping them and guiding them with discussions regarding goals of care, looking at benefits and burdens of interventions based on the patient's overall health condition and what the patient and family's goals are as well,” agrees Pat Coyne, the program director. “And we're very excited by that. It makes great sense to do this rather than have someone who's feeling miserable and may not have a long time on this earth drive four or five hours to Charleston. This way we can help them in their community and really work with their local health systems. And we think by doing this, patients and families get better care and more expertise.”
Coyne notes that their telehealth service comes at a time of nationwide shortages of palliative care specialists, with conservative estimates suggesting a need for more than 15,000 specialists currently with an increasing gap as America’s population ages.
“It’s all about the aging ‘Baby Boomer’ population,” he points out. That's what's creating the shortage, and in addition there are just not that many fellowship programs across the nation, so there are not as many opportunities for doctors to go and get certified in palliative care to be able to practice. In South Carolina, for instance, the state will graduate [just] seven fellows in palliative care this year. If you think about all the hospitals in South Carolina, that's not really doing anything to make an impact, even assuming they stay in the state.”
And while MUSC’s emphasis on telehealth in recent years also makes good business success, Seidenschmidt emphasizes that the chief goal is always quality of care.
“We want to help people—that’s our main goal,” she says, noting an experience not long ago that demonstrated their commitment.
“I was at a health fair in Orangeburg [county] and I met a woman whose sister had stage four cancer and would have really benefited from palliative care, but there was just no specialty care offered in that area,” she recalls.
“It broke my heart that I was not able to connect that woman with a resource in her area. I gave her my card and told her to reach out to me. But my hope would be that at some point, when I meet patients across the state, I will be able to say ‘I can connect you with a palliative provider because we see patients at such and such health system, which is very close to you.’”