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(From left) Altru Health System executive vice presidents Dr. Steve Weiser, chief medical officer, and Mark Waind, chief information officer, stand for a portrait in Grand Forks on Thursday, October 10, 2019. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service

New tech, meet new med: How growing telecomm tech and the internet is reshaping Upper Midwest medicine

Maybe you’ve caught an episode. “Chasing the Cure,” a TNT/TBS show about medical mysteries, showcases ailments that don’t seem to have an explanation — and asks the audience to lend a hand. 

One such mystery is Cathy, a Gulf War veteran with a persistent, wracking cough and hair loss. Nobody can seem to figure out what’s wrong. But maybe a panel of experts — and you, the viewer — can help?  

“For the past 28 years they did test after test, x-ray after x-ray, blood tests, comb biopsies,” Cathy says in a taped segment on the show’s website. “I’ve had all manner of inhalers. It may work for like two or three days, and then that cough’s back full strong. Like it grew muscles.” 

The show crowdsources medical advice in a way that’s only become possible in the past few decades. It is, at its core, not just a show about its patients’ confounding ailments, but a window into how medicine is changing in the age of the internet. Better diagnoses with big medical data, long-range virtual doctors’ visits and —yes — even the kind of collaborative diagnoses that bring doctors hundreds of miles apart together on a case are becoming easier with the advent of better, faster telecommunications technology.

For medical providers in the upper Midwest, technology has been marching forward — making all manner of things possible — for decades and decades. Dr. Josh Crabtree, senior vice president of clinic operations for Sanford Health, points out that even some of the most basic changes in telecommunications have helped transform the profession. 

“We can go back a long ways and say the telephone was a huge technological advancement in the practice of medicine — just being able to pick up a telephone and call a consultant that was an hour away or halfway around the world,” Crabtree said. “But also through technology, not only can I now talk to them on a phone, but I can talk to them on a video screen.” 

That kind of remote care is the conceit behind devices like Tyto Care, a home device that has a few basic instruments — like a camera, thermometer and tongue depressor — and can help doctors remotely examine patients. Sanford’s website boasts that it can even help doctors make a diagnosis and offer a prescription, all without the patient ever seeing a doctor in person.  

For regions like North Dakota, those technologies, dubbed “telemedicine,” are seen as an increasingly important way to provide access to medical care. The Washington Post reports that 80 percent of the rural U.S. is “medically underserved,” per federal officials, with dim hopes of an increase in doctors. A map of North Dakota on file with the University of North Dakota’s Center for Rural Health indicates that most of the state is a “geographic health professional shortage area.” 

Telemedicine is increasingly in use around the country. Altru Health System is growing its own suite of telemedicine services, too, which Mark Waind, executive vice president and chief information officer, said helps keep patients from driving long distances for care and keep patients from heading out in bad weather — when a video connection with a nurse and patient on one end and a doctor on the other will help medical professionals size up the situation perfectly well. 

“When you look at the last four or five years, we have had a dramatic increase in the amount of telemedicine that we have,” Waind said. 

The other big development, said Dr. Mark Weiser, Altru’s chief medical officer, are the ways that big medical data is starting to help doctors treat patients. Doctor’s haven’t been replaced by artificial intelligence yet, of course — but a wealth of medical data marshaled by computers is beginning to give doctors a deeper understanding the likelihood that a patient is ready to be discharged, for example. 

And, of course, there’s plenty of collaboration that mirrors what happens on television shows like “Chasing the Cure” — the Mayo Clinic Care Network, which is more or less an extended network of resources, including doctor expertise, that health care providers can tap into. According to the clinic’s website, that includes things like e-consultations, where doctors can tap Mayo experts for advice about a patient, to health care consulting, in which industry experts offer advice on things like “patient care, human resources, finance and other administrative and operational areas.” Altru is a member.

But, just like with the telephone, some of the simplest advances in medical technology are some of the most transformative. Waind points out that the patients who walk into the emergency room nowadays already know more than most other patients. 

“(Patients are) way more informed than they ever have because you can google anything…you can google a kidney stone or chest pain or elbow pain,” he said. “You can google what a fracture looks like.”