Recently our organization — the Medical University of South Carolina — achieved a mark that only one other institution in this country has ever reached. MUSC was named a National Telehealth Center of Excellence (COE), receiving a $600,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant has the potential to grow to some $2 million if additional funds are awarded over the next two years. Simultaneously, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, based in Jackson, also received a Telehealth COE designation and funding.

American psychologist Nathaniel Branden is credited with stating, “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” More than 12 years ago, MUSC came to the realization that telehealth had to be a central component of the health care access options for the people of our state. We turned to our legislators to gain support and alignment to make this vision a reality. The goal was not to elevate MUSC, rather the focus was to change the future delivery of health care for South Carolina. Achieving this goal required MUSC to marshal our extensive resources and take a leadership position with our partners. As a founding member of the South Carolina Telehealth Alliance (SCTA), a collaboration established to empower care providers and patients across the state to effectively use telehealth, MUSC is uniquely prepared to continue leading our state’s telehealth efforts. This institution has a long history of accomplishing our three-part mission in a state with largely rural areas and high rates of chronic disease among a particularly impoverished and medically underserved population.

The state’s investment in telehealth has paved the way for better specialized care for all our citizens, regardless of where they live. In turn, this federal grant was awarded based on our telehealth network’s access and progress in rural care. The grant acknowledges that in this domain MUSC and SCTA are a model for the nation, and we are proud to lead in this arena.

While being one of the first to receive this prestigious designation sends a clear message about the premier status of the MUSC telehealth network, what’s most important is the impact these funds will have on the lives of the people of South Carolina and our nation. As one of the country’s first two National Telehealth COEs, MUSC is charged with determining and measuring the impact of our work at a whole new level, leveraging our efforts to assess their value. We must continue to examine what we do and how we do it, using telehealth data and insight in research projects that spur innovation. We must extend our connectivity to an even greater number of physicians and patients, reaching more underserved, rural areas with much-needed, quality health care. Plus, we must uncover and add novel ways to deliver top-quality care, while refining reimbursement methods.

As a national telehealth coordinating center, MUSC will continue to provide a range of telehealth services at locations statewide, leading and modeling the way for health care delivery through advanced technology. Having embarked on our telehealth program in 2005, today, through our statewide partnerships, MUSC delivers an aggregate number of 232,424 telehealth visits annually. We provide 77 unique telehealth services to more than 200 sites in 27 of South Carolina’s 46 counties. Care settings include 28 hospitals, more than 100 community clinics, 50 schools, and alternative sites such as nursing facilities, prisons and patients’ homes. By virtue of our telehealth network, all South Carolinians are now less than one hour away from expert stroke care, which was unheard of five years ago.

This grant provides the opportunity to use our scientific resources to develop recommendations and solutions to universally complex telehealth barriers including open-access networks that will allow all providers to collaborate, consult and receive educational support directly in the setting where they treat patients — be that a hospital, medical office building, clinic or other site. Through this COE designation, we will address issues that are impeding the expansion and adoption of telehealth in rural states like ours where it is most critically needed.

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Being among the first to be designated as a Telehealth COE was not an MUSC goal; however, driving to achieve our vision — to lead health innovation for the lives we touch — is woven into our institutional DNA. We salute everyone who shares the passion and partnership that made this benchmark possible. We welcome the challenges ahead as we use this grant to advance the impact of telehealth services for the men, women and children throughout our state, region and beyond.

David J. Cole is president of MUSC. Patrick J. Cawley is vice president for health affairs at MUSC and CEO of MUSC Health.