T-Health in Phoenix: a model for medical education and health care of the future

Phoenix 08 January 2008Some say that life begins at 40 and the same can be said of the next generation of health care education programmes at the University of Arizona (UA) College of Medicine, which turned 40 in November 2007. Medical education no longer is bound by the walls of classrooms, labs and clinics. Today's medical students are learning medicine throughout Arizona and beyond while they remain on campus - and health care professionals are continuing their medical education without leaving their hometowns - thanks to the UA College of Medicine's Arizona Telemedicine Programme, known as ATP.


The nerve centre of this new direction in health care education is the Institute for Advanced Telemedicine and Telehealth, known as T-Health, a division of the ATP based at the college's Phoenix campus, known officially as the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix in partnership with Arizona State University.

As an educational institution, T-Health incorporates both telemedicine and telehealth - distance learning and health care delivery - using a wide range of technologies, including real-time videoconferencing, electronic transmission of digital medical images and data and the Internet.

T-Health's state-of-the-art facility is housed in one of three renovated historic buildings of the original Phoenix Union High School, built in the early 1900s. While the building's façade was restored to its original appearance circa 1912, the interior is a step into the future.

T-Health's multimedia interactive conferencing centre includes an auditorium, classrooms, videoconference rooms and media control rooms. Video walls, private teleconference rooms and individual computers bring together medical students, faculty, health care professionals and patients who are hundreds of miles apart, allowing individual and group interactions that bring to mind episodes of "The Jetsons" or "Star Trek".

T-Health was conceived by Dr. Ronald S. Weinstein, co-founder and director of the ATP. Established in 1996, the ATP today is recognized as one of the premier telemedicine programmes in the United States for its distance health care services, education and research, provided over a network of more than 170 sites across Arizona.

Arizona state Senator Robert "Bob" Burns, one of the founders of the ATP and now chairman of the Arizona Telemedicine Council, was instrumental in the establishment and success of the telemedicine programme.

"T-Health's purpose is to innovate and develop novel distance learning and health care delivery, to revolutionize how people are educated and how they receive health care", Senator Weinstein stated. "T-Health will leverage what we've learned about health care education from the telemedicine programme and address the issue of how technology can change the way we educate health care professionals."

The establishment of T-Health was influenced by a recommendation by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, known as IOM, to develop health education team training to improve the quality of health care.

Noting that health care increasingly is being provided by a variety of health care professionals - physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, physical therapists and others in a variety of settings - the IOM proposed that "education reform be undertaken in order to promote collaboration among clinicians in practice settings" by establishing "regional demonstration learning centres, representing partnerships between practice and education".

As one of the United States' first regional demonstration learning centres, T-Health will develop educational programmes for interprofessional training of doctors, pharmacists, nurses and other health care professionals, teaching them to collaborate and create more efficient and effective health care teams for the benefit of patients.

Telecommunications technology will enable health professionals to access these programmes from their communities. T-Health will draw on the ATP's experience delivering continuing medical education to health care providers in many organisations throughout a large geographic area.

T-Health will support the medical student curriculum by expanding access to educational, clinical and research resources throughout the state. Videoconferencing will be used for interactive lectures and to promote team learning.

For example, groups of medical, nursing and pharmacy students will work together on patient scenarios, learning to think about patients in the context of teams of patient service providers and developing interdisciplinary patient care management plans.

Students will develop information technology skills as they do research and gather information for diagnosis and medical treatments. Faculty and staff also will be able to conduct research and develop medical simulations, robotics and medical devices.

Telemedicine will expand the medical students' clinical patient experiences by linking to the ATP's clinical settings - located in Arizona's rural and underserved communities as well as in urban, correctional, community health and home health environments - where the ATP provides health care services in more than 60 subspecialities of medicine, pathology, paediatrics, psychiatry, radiology and surgery.

The ATP also provides support to its T-Health facility in Panama City, Panama, and directs the T-Health Center for Clinical Innovation, established in 2005 at University Physicians Hospital and Clinics in Tucson, which serves as the clinical counterpart to the Phoenix facility and as T-Health's clinical research centre.

T-Health will have a far-reaching impact on health care in Arizona and beyond. Distance learning will help address the shortage of health care professionals, allowing access to degree programmes and continuing medical education "from the comfort of home".

Videoconferencing will enable sharing medical knowledge between practices. Telehealth will improve access to quality health care by bringing together patients and specialists separated by hundreds of miles, greatly reducing travel time and expense.

In developing these services, T-Health will generate advances in health care technology, stimulating the creation of new companies in Arizona to produce hardware and software for education and training; devices for medical imaging, robotic surgery and virtual reality; and other related products.

Leslie Versweyveld

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