As Universal Health Care Looms, First School of Telemedicine Opens

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by Con Chapman
Lifestyles Editor

Western Montana is also piloting a telecounseling center on campus.
Western Montana is also piloting a telecounseling center on campus.

KALISPELL, Montana. Like many who plan to enter the healing professions, Beth Ovashinski is driven by a desire to make the world a better place as well as pay off her student loans. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little girl,” she says as strolls the aisles of the campus bookstore at Western Montana State here. “Nurses work harder and make less money.”

But a C+ in organic chemistry caused her to change her career plans, even after applying to medical schools in the Caribbean where academic standards are lower. “I guess it would be good to have a degree from Turks & Caicos School of Medicine if you want to go into dermatology,” she says, “but I was thinking of a broader practice than sunburn and skin cancer.”

So Beth was excited when she learned that Western Montana was opening the first school of telemedicine in the U.S., attracting students whose grades may have been adversely affected by too much television viewing in student lounges over their undergraduate years.

Telemedicine is a new and exciting method of delivering healthcare in a cost-effective manner,” says Professor Shep Melville, who was recruited to come Western Montana from a tenured position at the New York Institute of Media and Communications. “With universal health coverage on the horizon, telemedicine means we can reach isolated patients in sparsely-populated states such as Montana in an economic manner.”

Telemedicine” is defined as the use of telecommunication technologies such as digital television to provide health care at a distance. “Say you’ve got a guy with athlete’s foot in Glasgow,” says Melville, referring to a town in eastern Montana. “With telemedicine we can service him from 400 miles away so he doesn’t come into the office and gross out the nurses.”

Like a regular medical school, introductory survey courses at Western Montana’s School of Telemedicine are taught in a large auditorium where an instructor uses visual aids to deliver material to a class of close to a hundred first-year students.

Let’s see,” Melville says, as a giant high-definition TV screen descends from above and he shuffles through a handful of DVDs. “What do you guys want to watch today: House M.D., Grey’s Anatomy or M*A*S*H?”