Grant given to Memorial Health System for opioid efforts

Telemedicine system to be established

MARIETTA — A federal grant worth $465,908 will be put to use by the Memorial Health System in an effort to decrease the potential for prescription opioid diversion in five Appalachian Ohio counties.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture distance and telemedicine project, is one of the largest ever received by the Marietta-based health care system, Daneka Hedges, executive director of the Memorial Health Foundation, said Wednesday.

The money will be used to establish a telemedicine system between Memorial and eight nursing and rehabilitation facilities in Washington, Jackson, Meigs, Vinton and Athens counties. The telecommunications link will allow physicians, social workers and nurse practitioners at Memorial to advise and consult with medical professionals and their patients at each of the eight facilities, with the goal of reducing the opportunities for opioid prescriptions to get into the wrong hands, and also to offer education in alternative methods of pain control for patients.

“We’re extremely excited, this is one of the largest grants we’ve ever received, and we think it will be a truly impactful project, considering the opioid epidemic,” Hedges said.

The project will create closer connectivity among health care providers in the region, she said.

“For example, a nursing home in Vinton County will be able to meet online with a psychiatrist from Washington County,” she said.

The telemedicine system is significantly more complex than videoconferencing through systems such as Facetime or Skype, she said. Memorial already has systems in place to connect, for example, its Marietta and Belpre campuses, and the new system will be built off that, using Polycom, an international tech company, to set it up.

Linda Sistruck is a social worker for Memorial and was a key player in writing the successful grant application.

“It’s a nontraditional route for education, treatment and monitoring of opioid prescription use. We’re focusing on long-term care, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers who prescribe and treat patients with opioids,” she said.

Sistruck said she spent a decade working in nursing homes and sees them as an area that needs more attention in the opioid crisis.

“I am a licensed nursing home administrator, and I saw extensive opportunities for misuse. We provide 60-day prescriptions for people who are discharged from a nursing home, and there is a need for patient education, telling people how long it is written for, to keep it in an appropriate place,” she said. “It’s an epidemic, and if there’s any opportunity, for the addicted, that’s easy access.”

Sistruck said Memorial will have a core staff of three positions, probably including a social worker, nurse practitioner and other medical professional, to run the program.

“We’re still in the planning process, which will likely take 60 to 90 days,” she said. The project will be up and running by late fall or early winter at the latest, she said.

Sistruck said that because this is a new idea, it is difficult to say what success will look like.

“The outcomes probably will be determined by the prescription use, decreasing the number written, in conjunction with positive outcomes for the patients,” she said. Having received the grant to get the project going, she said, Memorial will set baseline information by acquiring data on the prescription volume for each of the facilities involved.

She also noted that the project, because it will add a new control level to opioid prescribing, might actually make it easier for people with a history of drug use to get services they need such as skilled nursing care and rehabilitation.

“For those people, it will increase the availability of resources,” she said.

The program will also make health care delivery more efficient, Hedges said, by reducing travel time and creating greater flexibility in making and changing appointments for medical professionals based in Marietta who consult with patients in the rural areas served by the new telemedicine system.

“A doctor can see three times as many patients in a given time, and we’re excited about that because it increases accessibility, everyone benefits,” she said. “The doctor can’t touch the patient or shake their hand, but other than that it’s an improvement of care.”

Sistruck said the program is an indication that Memorial is taking the opioid crisis seriously.

“We are engaged and passionate about addressing this epidemic and helping our community,” she said.

Michael Kelly can be reached at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.