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Child-abuse evaluations go high-tech

A new teleconferencing system allows a patient in Lecanto to be examined by a doctor in Gainesville, saving children long trips and lessening the trauma.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


LECANTO -- The patient, a physically or sexually abused child, is in Citrus County. The doctor or nurse practitioner, specially trained to handle such cases, is in Gainesville.

For these people to connect, one must travel a long distance, right?

Not anymore. Thanks to modern technology, doctors and nurse practitioners can examine such patients by an interactive video teleconferencing system.

It's called telemedicine, and Florida is the first state to use live interactive technology for child abuse evaluations, according to Kim Jordan, a registered nurse who works with the state Child Protection Team that serves this area.

Here's how the system works:

Law officers or investigators from the Department of Children and Families take the victim to the Citrus County Health Department in Lecanto, which recently was outfitted with the necessary telemedicine equipment. Lecanto is considered one of the "remote" sites in the state telemedicine network.

The doctor or nurse practitioner from the Child Protection Team goes to an office in Gainesville, where the team for this region is based. Gainesville is a "hub" in the network.

A special camera allows the doctor to see the patient, and vice versa, in real time on monitors that are similar to TV screens. The information actually is transmitted via telephone lines, so clarity and confidentiality are excellent.

A nurse standing with the patient serves as the examiner's hands, moving a hand-held camera over the patient's body. The nurse, specially trained in providing such examinations, has other medical tools to use as necessary.

The benefits are obvious. First and foremost, the system makes long trips unnecessary and lessens the child's trauma. "We felt it was very important not to take people out of their district," Jordan said. "They need to be home. They need to be in a safe situation."

Second, law enforcement officers and social workers can build stronger cases against offenders when examinations are completed quickly by specially trained professionals. (A child who needs immediate emergency care is taken to a hospital emergency room.)

The Child Protection Team serves 16 area counties including Citrus. It is a multidisciplinary team whose tasks include evaluating children who have been identified as alleged abuse victims. The team is a program of the University of Florida's Department of Pediatrics and is sponsored by the Florida Department of Health, Children's Medical Services.

State law requires team members to examine some patients, depending on particular circumstances of a case. One of the law's strong points is that "it makes sure that the Department of Children and Families and the Child Protection Teams discuss these issues," said Dr. Howard Rogers, the team's medical director.

There are hundreds of patients to be seen each year. Sometimes, the ones from Citrus can make it to Gainesville or Ocala, where the team has limited staff.

Telemedicine makes the system quicker and more convenient for people in outlying areas like Citrus. The goal in Lecanto is to make the system available all the time. As it stands, staffing concerns dictate that the telemedicine facilities can be used only one day each week.

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