Mission Health's Genetics Program Treats First Patients via Telehealth Technology

By Heath Nettles | Jan 04, 2013

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (Jan. 4, 2013) – Today, Mission Health announced that its Fullerton Genetics Center successfully performed its inaugural remote genetic screenings via the Telehealth program. Using this two-way audio/video conferencing service, patients at Rutherford Regional Medical Center were connected to specialists 60 miles away in Asheville for the counseling sessions.


“Two patients have already used this new service, and we anticipate that many more will take advantage of this valuable tool,” said Jamie Ingraham, Cancer Outreach Program Manager at Rutherford Regional Health System. “We have a great need for genetic counseling in our community as we often screen for hereditary cancers, such as breast and ovarian cancers. The Telehealth service is very convenient for patients, allowing them to experience face-to-face meetings with a genetic counselor without having to travel.”


One in 22 people in the U.S. has a genetic disorder. Sadly, many of those affected may never be diagnosed because access to genetic testing can often be hindered by high fees and limited access to genetics services. By offering a comprehensive genetic services program remotely via Telehealth technology, Mission Health's Fullerton Genetics Center is breaking down some of these barriers in isolated areas of western North Carolina.


"Before, about 60 percent of patients in our rural hospitals who were referred for genetic counseling did not seek these services because they had to travel at least an hour to the nearest genetics center in Asheville or Charlotte," said Jonathan Bailey, MHA, Vice President of Operations for Mission Health. "We are thrilled to give our patients in rural areas easier access to this comprehensive screening program close to home through state-of-the-art Telehealth technology.”


When a patient is referred for the genetic counseling session, an appointment is scheduled at the patient’s local clinic or hospital. There, a nurse navigator is assigned to accompany the patient through every step of the process. Nurse navigators greet the patients, assist with registration, take notes during the counseling session and escort patients to the laboratory for testing.


During the counseling portion of the session, Telehealth laptop computer stations enable Mission Hospital clinicians in Asheville to connect with the endpoint remote robot stationed at rural clinics or hospitals in western North Carolina. The "hub" site clinicians have direct control of the remote robot and, through the robot, navigate routine clinical processes at the remote location. Patients and their healthcare providers can talk privately to discuss personal and family history, perform a risk assessment and review tests and laboratory results together, without traveling for the appointment.


Cathy Carr, 63, of Bostic, NC, was one of the first patients to experience the Telehealth genetic screening at Rutherford Regional Health System, where Telehealth robot SARA (Stroke Assessment Robotic Assistant) facilitated the conference.


“My session was absolutely wonderful, and it was convenient knowing I did not have to drive all the way to Asheville,” said Carr. “The session was comfortable and private. I was in a small room with just my husband, the nurse navigator and the counselor from Fullerton Genetics Center on the other end. By the end of my session, all my questions were answered and everything was taken care of, just as if I was sitting face to face with my counselor.”


Fullerton Genetics Center has been serving western North Carolina for more than 19 years and is the region’s only comprehensive genetic services program. The center includes international experts on specific genetic conditions who research, diagnose and treat genetic conditions in children and adults. The center also provides counseling and education for patients and their families.


“Our main focus is to help our patients understand and manage genetic conditions,” said Jack Tarleton, PhD, FACMG, Director of Fullerton Genetics Laboratory. "All of our physicians, clinicians and laboratory technicians are certified by their respective professional associations or boards. They are at the top of their fields and can provide vital health information for our patients.”


A genetic counseling session can be daunting in and of itself, and the addition of a robot can seem intimidating. However, Ingraham noted that the simplicity of the Telehealth technology and naturalness of compassionate counselors on the screen help to put patients at ease and forget the robot is a machine.


“Our patients were extremely pleased with their sessions, and that is always our main focus,” said Ingraham, who also acts as a nurse navigator for Rutherford Regional Health System. “At first sight of the robot, the patients were a little hesitant, but they were praising it by the time they walked out of the door.”


About Mission Health


Mission Health, based in Asheville, N.C., is the state’s sixth-largest health system and the region’s only not-for-profit, independent community hospital system governed and managed exclusively in western North Carolina. In 2012 Mission Health was named one of the nation’s Top 15 Health Systems by Thomson Reuters – the only health system in North Carolina to receive this recognition.


Mission Health, which traces its roots in the region back to 1885, operates five hospitals, numerous outpatient and surgery centers, and the region’s only dedicated Level II trauma center. Its medical staff consists of more than 1,000 physicians and is certified in over 50 medical specialties and sub-specialties. Mission Health has seven Centers of Excellence: Cancer, Heart, Mission Children’s Hospital, Neurosciences, Orthopedics, Trauma and Women’s Health. Mission Hospital, located in Asheville, is the system’s flagship hospital and is licensed for 730 beds. It is the regional referral center for tertiary and quaternary care and is the busiest surgical hospital in North Carolina. It also includes Mission Children’s Hospital– the region’s only children’s hospital. Other Mission Health member hospitals include Angel Medical Center in Franklin, Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine, McDowell Hospital in Marion and Transylvania Regional Hospital in Brevard. With approximately 8,800 employees and 700 volunteers, Mission Health is dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the people of western North Carolina. For more information, please visit mission-health.org.