The Department of Neurology at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso is expanding telemedicine services and community education in rural West Texas with the help of a generous grant from the Permian Basin Area Foundation.
The $35,000 grant from the foundation will allow the department to create short educational videos providing vital epilepsy information to residents of the rural Permian Basin and Big Bend regions who visit Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) or Big Bend Regional Medical Center, said Sushma Yerram, M.D., epilepsy specialist at TTP El Paso. The short videos will include QR codes that link viewers to helpful information from TTP El Paso, which is the clinical practice of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Foster School of Medicine.
“There’s a lack of neurology specialists in the rural West Texas region. In fact, the closest neurology specialist would be about two to three hours away,” said Dr. Yerram, who is also an assistant professor at TTUHSC El Paso. “Because of those circumstances, there’s a lack of convenient education materials about epilepsy and other neurological issues. This will bring awareness to help them recognize warning signs. With the videos, we can target the general population or even local caregivers.”
The grant will also pay for an electroencephalography (EEG) technician who will travel to the Big Bend region to provide EEG services and assist with telemedicine visits. The technician will visit the Big Bend health centers once every three months, Dr. Yerram said.
The Department of Neurology has provided outreach services to patients with epilepsy in Alpine, Marfa, Presidio and Van Horn for about 10 years. Patients would typically make in-person visits with their physician every four months. In-person visits were cut back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but TTP El Paso responded by expanding its telehealth services in these rural areas.
“Challenges that we’re encountering in providing telehealth services include the lack of broadband connectivity in rural communities and the lack of staff to help epilepsy patients navigate telehealth,” Dr. Yerram said. “Because internet access is so limited in the area, we believe that telehealth station deployment in a FQHC with broadband capability is a critical step in our efforts to extend telehealth services to the region.”
The effort to raise awareness for epilepsy coincides with International Epilepsy Day, which will fall on Feb. 14 this year. Every year, more than 130 countries acknowledge the challenges caused by the disease on the second Monday of February.
Dr. Yerram believes the programs will be just as important after the pandemic because they will reduce the need for patients to travel three hours to El Paso. Instead, telemedicine will be used for initial screenings and consultations. Appointments that are more vital will require a face-to-face visit, but follow-ups may be possible using the new telehealth equipment.
“If people have to come to El Paso for an appointment, it’s a one- to three-day commitment, depending on their situation. They may need to come a day early or leave a day later,” Dr. Yerram said. “And for some epilepsy patients, traveling isn’t as easy as just getting in a car and driving. Depending on their diagnosis, traveling can be hazardous. With this program, we can eliminate those travel and financial barriers.”
Founded in 1989, the Permian Basin Area Foundation’s goal is to create permanent charitable funds to improve the quality of life for West Texas residents.
TTP El Paso provides more than $31 million of uncompensated care annually, ensuring all residents in the region have access to world-class patient care. Every year, physicians conduct more than 200,000 clinic visits for El Paso-area patients.
TTUHSC El Paso is the only health sciences center on the U.S.-Mexico border and serves 108 counties in West Texas that have been historically underserved. It is one of only two health sciences centers in the nation designated as Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions, preparing the next generation of health care heroes, 48% of whom identify as Hispanic.