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KNOXVILLE — Telemedicine can provide quality, lower-cost health care for homebound patients and the elderly if government agencies will ease payment restrictions, a University of Tennessee researcher has told a congressional panel.

Dr. Sam Burgiss, manager of the UT Telemedicine Network, testified recently before the health and environment subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee on the uses of interactive video technologies to deliver health care services to patients in rural areas.

“Telehealth has the potential to provide care at lower cost to the various agencies that pay for it and also to help patients get more rapid care without as much travel and costs to them,” Burgiss said.

Burgiss, whose Ph.D. is in electrical engineering, set up the UT program at UT Medical Center in 1995. The network uses high-resolution television images transmitted over broad-bandwidth phone lines to allow doctors in Knoxville to talk with and examine patients in rural communities in East Tennessee. The remote sites include clinics or hospitals in Etowah, Huntsville, LaFollette, Blaine, Washburn, Rutledge and Morristown.

Burgiss said a home televisit saves approximately $50 per visit in transportation and labor costs from sending a nurse to the home. He recommended to the committee that legislation be changed to permit nonmedical personnel to assist in the patient’s home during a telemedicine appointment and that the Health Care Finance Administration recognize telehealth home care as a service administered and accounted under federal law.

Burgiss said telehealth exams reduce the need for in-home visits, hospitalizations and long-term care. Patients rate their satisfaction with telemedicine exams as excellent, he said.

The UT Graduate School of Medicine supports the network through grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Commerce, as well as private funding.