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The Engineer Inside the Physician

Dr. C. Anne Patterson’s Journey into Telemedicine

Telemedicine — the delivery of healthcare via telecommunication technologies — has been around for decades. But it took an engineer to get it just right. 

“We were doing telemedicine at NASA in the early 70’s, but it was completely ‘unsophisticated’ by current standards,” says Georgia Tach aerospace engineering alumna C. Anne Patterson, a board-certified OBGYN and CEO of the Sandy Springs-based Women’s Telehealth.

“We used a satellite to provide information about birth control that people in India could watch in between regular television programing,” remembers Patterson. “I was a propulsion engineer working on that satellite. Later, the satellite was re-purposed to send medical information to physicians in very remote areas of the Rocky Mountains. And that was the extent of our ‘telemedicine’ in the 70s.”

Four decades later, the telemedicine that Patterson now practices is much more than a medically-themed infomercial beamed down from a satellite. It is a systematic use of several technologies (including satellites), all with the goal of delivering personalized medical care directly to patients in remote areas. Telemedicine is also removing one of the largest barriers to health care delivery in the rural South: a chronic shortage of specialized medical practitioners.  

“We’ve been able to set up clinics in seven southern states,” says Patterson. “We’ve reached more than 30,000 mostly low-income women — women who would not have access to maternal-fetal health. This is what modern telemedicine is capable of doing.”

Finding her Specialty

Patterson chose her medical specialty — maternal-fetal medicine — in part because it plays such a critical role in Georgia, which has some of the highest rates in the United States for maternal mortality and pre-term delivery, particularly among women of color. 

 “We conducted a study in Albany Georgia — an area that had preterm birth rates of 18 percent for African-American women, and 16 percent for Hispanic women,” says Patterson. “Those rates were the highest in the state. While it was a tough region to choose, everyone was receptive to trying something new to make a difference.” After bringing telemedicine into the area for 18 months, pre-term birth rates dropped to 8 percent and 6 percent respectively, which is lower than the national average. To date, the rates remain at this level or lower.

Telemedicine is uniquely suited to address the problems faced by the rural poor, Patterson points out. It does not involve high transportation costs, travel time, childcare, or Medicaid. With all of these barriers eliminated, patients are more likely to initiate and maintain contact with the medical system earlier in their pregnancies. Women’s Telehealth helps these high-risk patients to manage chronic health problems — like diabetes and hypertension — that could threaten their pregnancies.  

In a typical consultation with Patterson, the conversation rarely ends when doctor and patient have checked off all the obvious medical issues, however. Before the video shuts down, Patterson leans into a more motherly consult with her patients, who have likewise relaxed their once-tense postures. At these moments, it’s a little easier to understand why Patterson is still seeing patients long past the point when most physicians would have retired.

To read full article go to: https://www.coe.gatech.edu/news/2019/11/engineer-inside-physician

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