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Arkansas prisons, rural hospitals to receive new telemedicine equipment

Varner Arkansas Department of Correction Cummins Prison
Michael Hibblen
The Varner Unit, seen in this 2017 file photo, is one of six Arkansas prisons set to receive upgraded telemedicine equipment.

Rural hospitals and prisons in Arkansas are slated to upgrade equipment used to communicate remotely with healthcare providers in and out of the state.

The $738,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will go to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to purchase new long-distance learning equipment for 36 sites across the state. Additionally, UAMS will match roughly $110,000 in funding for the program.

Rachel Ott, grants director for the UAMS Institute for Digital Health and Innovation, says the goal is to modernize the infrastructure of the state’s existing telehealth network.

“We have a lot of emergency telemedicine services throughout the state that connect rural folks and rural physicians to specialists through interactive video," Ott said. "These funds will be used to upgrade equipment so that these hospitals have the latest technology capabilities to connect to services.”

Ott says the teleconferencing equipment will be tailored to each individual site, with some hospitals and prisons receiving mobile telehealth equipment on wheels. She says facilities will not be required to use the equipment to only view UAMS programming or consult with their providers.

The new equipment, Ott says, could serve as a lifeline for some hospitals lacking certain specialist physicians, like neurologists.

“In cases like stroke, every second counts," Ott said. "If that patient has to be transported for that diagnosis, many of them will suffer long-term morbidities, even mortality because of that time lapse. So emergency telemedicine gets that care to the patient faster.”

Hospitals in Helena, Camden, Magnolia and El Dorado are among the facilities set to benefit from the grant. Six prisons in the state will be receiving the new videoconferencing equipment, including the Varner and McPherson units which house the state’s death row inmates.

While decisions on the use of the equipment will be up to the state Department of Corrections, Dr. Melissa Zielinski, assistant professor of clinical psychology at UAMS, says she hopes to see equipment used for educational services targeted toward inmates in rural prisons.

“Trauma and addiction are two areas that are really heavily interlinked and often linked in with the reasons that people become incarcerated in the first place," Zielinski said. "So I think group-based programming, say, that could help people with trauma sequelae including post-traumatic stress disorder and symptoms, managing serious mental illness, help with treating addiction or even support groups.”

Zielinski says the equipment will also serve as an education and training tool for prison inmates and staff, which often rely on volunteers for such services. A news release from UAMS says the equipment will allow prisons “to partner with higher-learning institutes and other groups to offer college courses and GED training in addition to recreational offerings and substance use and sexual violence recovery programs.”

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.