September is Sickle Cell Awareness month. The CDC says 1 in 13 African American babies is born with the trait. In the last 20 years, Sickle Cell related deaths in children have fallen by more than 40% thanks in part to contributions from doctors at Augusta University.
Most patients with SCD see a doctor every 1-2 months, which is tough especially if you live miles from a specialist. Augusta University says telemedicine is changing the game and their program is the first to offer it to Sickle Cell patients across the state of Georgia.
NewsChannel 6’s Ashley Osborne talked to Dr. Betty Pace who is a pioneer in the field of Sickle Cell Disease. She also talked via video conference with one of Dr. Pace’s patients and her mom.
Felicia Marshall and her daughter Yasmine Gainer live in Tifton, GA. The closest Sickle Cell specialist for Yasmine is in Augusta, which is roughly 200 miles from them. Tanks to telemedicine, they can skip hours in the car and complete an appointment with Dr. Pace from hundreds of miles away.
“It’s better than having to drive to Augusta when they can’t make it,” Marshall says.
Dr. Pace explains the first appointment with her patients is in person.
“We actually go to South Georgia from Augusta University and see patients with Sickle Cell Disease in 5 different cities—Athens, Valdosta, Albany Waycross and Dublin and then of course the children here in Augusta,” says Dr. Pace.
Follow-up appointments can be fulfilled via video conference by using a camera, internet connection and Bluetooth devices.
“We can do nose and throat exam,” Dr. Pace says. “We can listen to the lungs with a Bluetooth stethoscope. We listen to the heart sounds and then we have a nice monitor where we can look at skin rashes. The one area that we can’t do is to actually feel the abdomen.” Dr. Pace points out this is a thorough exam.
Teenage Yasmine is very comfortable with the technology.
“The first time I did it I was like, ‘wow they can actually see me. They hear my heartbeat and everything!’”
Her mom Felicia on the other hand was a little nervous about the new-age doctors’ visit.
“I was like—you mean to tell me they can see her heart and they can listen to her in there?!” The telemedicine clinic is still a little weird for Felicia, but she says she likes it.
Some tell Dr. Pace they like telemedicine appointments better because the in-person clinics can be congested with long wait times.
“When we asked them would they refer the telemedicine to someone else and pretty much hands down they say yes,” Dr. Pace says about their evaluation results.
Dr. Pace says she has seen about 250 patients via video conference during the last 2.5 years since the inception of the program. Beforehand, she was not able to offer the standard of care because of the distance separating her from patients like jasmine.
“Access to care is so important, not just with Sickle Cell Disease, but for any, you know, well visits preventative medicine,” says Dr. Pace. “The possibilities are endless of how we can use the telemedicine.
Yamine has battled SCD since birth and gone to hundreds of doctors’ appointments; however, that did not deter her from wanting to pursue a career in medicine. Her plan is to study nursing next year when she goes to college. Felicia hopes technology like telemedicine helps her daughter maintain her treatments even if she goes to school away from home.