By Megan Lane
(December 2017) As Bettina Cuneo, MD, peered intently at an ultra-sound image, her
patient, a pregnant mother from Grand Junction, Colo., was visibly
But this was no ordinary doctor’s appointment.
previous week, during her 20-week ultrasound, the woman had been told
that her baby might have a heart defect, so she was referred for further
evaluation to Cuneo, a renowned fetal cardiologist at the Colorado
Fetal Care Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado and professor of
pediatrics at the CU School of Medicine.
As Cuneo viewed real-time
ultrasound images in her clinic in Aurora, her patient was sitting with
an ultrasound technician in Grand Junction, 250 miles away. Using video
conferencing technologies, Cuneo could see live imaging of the baby.
“virtual clinic” for fetal heart anomalies has saved expectant mothers
hundreds of hours of driving time and countless moments of worry.
discussing the patient’s history and concerns through the video
conference line, Cuneo directed the ultrasound technician to zoom in on a
specific area of the baby’s heart. Cuneo adjusted the volume on her
monitor, allowing her to hear the baby’s heartbeat as clearly as if she
were sitting right next to the patient. She closed her eyes, listened
closely, and then looked directly into the video camera.
“Your baby is going to be fine,” Cuneo said.
Through the image on her video screen, Cuneo could see tears of relief in the mother’s eyes.
digital tools and programs, caregivers can provide long-distance
clinical care and health education. With telecommunications
technologies, they reach patients in homes, schools, workplaces and
local primary care practices. More than half of U.S. hospitals now have
a telehealth program, according to the American Telemedicine
“I think of telehealth as healing from a distance,”
said Cuneo. “I love that I can help to reassure someone without making
them drive all the way across the Continental Divide.”
in telehealth comes when millions of Americans face challenges
accessing health care. Many rural areas lack child and maternal health
providers even as studies show that kids treated by caregivers with
pediatric training and experience have better health care outcomes.
Moreover, research indicates that children and pregnant mothers
receiving treatment closer to home fare better than those traveling long
In response, Children’s Colorado has launched new
telehealth programs: a virtual consultation with a pediatric specialist,
a smartphone app that encourages healthy behaviors, and technology that
allows a doctor to track a child’s vital signs from hundreds of miles
“Improving access is one of the greatest benefits of
telemedicine,” said Fred Thomas, PhD, director of telehealth at
Children’s Colorado and professor of psychiatry and family medicine.
“We’re also trying to reduce costs and barriers to receiving care while
also improving outcomes.”
Philanthropy makes it possible
upfront investment in new virtual health programs and can be
significant, and traditional reimbursement and funding models often
don’t support the creation telehealth programs.
“The proof of concept has to happen first, and that’s where philanthropy is absolutely critical,” said Thomas.
has played a significant role in establishing and maintaining these
programs at Children’s Colorado. One example is a partnership with a
pediatric practice in Durango, which gives virtual access to pediatric
specialists at Children’s Colorado for area children with complex care
needs. With digital otoscopes and stethoscopes, Children’s Colorado
specialists conduct full exams on patients hundreds of miles away.
can be extraordinarily burdensome for these children to access the
pediatric specialty care they require,” said Thomas, noting that rural
families often spend days commuting to and from Children’s Colorado,
missing work and school and incurring costly travel expenses. “With
telehealth, patients can go right down the road to see their
sub-specialist instead of coming to Denver.”
continues to develop partnerships with rural providers across the
region, allowing them to more easily consult with our expert
sub-specialists on complex pediatric health issues.
only organization in the country that’s doing the array of what we’re
doing,” said Thomas. “Telehealth is all about innovation and stretching
the limits of what’s possible. I think this is one of the most
life-altering things we do at Children’s Colorado.”
This article was originally published in July by the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation.