State comptroller views Schenectady telemedicine program as potential state model

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, left, receives a demonstration on how the Schenectady Fire Department’s telemedicine program works from Lt. Christopher Apa, Thursday.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, left, receives a demonstration on how the Schenectady Fire Department’s telemedicine program works from Lt. Christopher Apa, Thursday.

SCHENECTADY — More than a year after the Schenectady Fire Department launched a telemedicine program designed to expand treatment options for patients while reducing emergency room visits, over 160 individuals have utilized the service.  

The program started as a pilot with two apparatuses in 2020 and expanded to the entire department a few months later. A total of 121 patients used the service in 2021 and additional 45 have utilized it so far this year, according to Deputy Chief David Massaro.

Massaro provided an update about the program Thursday during a visit to the city by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. 

“These are patients that otherwise would be going to the hospital, taking up space unnecessarily, taking ambulances away from those with heart attacks or strokes or other sicknesses that we would need that transport,” Massaro said. “We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

The program materialized through a partnership with UCM Digital Health just months after the pandemic took root — a time when hospital emergency rooms were overrun with COVID-19 patients, leading to longer wait times and putting ambulances out of commission as paramedics waited to drop patients off. 

How the program works is: paramedics arrive on scene and examine a patient as normal, but in non-emergency cases, individuals are given the option to meet virtually with a physician from UCM who can help determine a best course of treatment that doesn’t involve a trip to the emergency room.

Options could include diverting patients to a local urgent care or filling a prescription, among other things. The department is also working to expand the program by collecting and analyzing data on the types of 911 calls in the city.

Recently, a partnership with Lange Pharmacy was formed to create a prescription drug drop-off program, helping to address issues around transportation. The department is also working to form partnerships with local organizations like Bethesda House to divert patients experiencing mental health and addiction away from hospitals and into treatment programs where they can receive resources an emergency room wouldn’t ordinarily provide, Massaro said. 

The department receives approximately 18,000 calls a year, with an estimated 12,000 being medical calls.

The city is also working with local organizations to raise awareness about the program, which is key for the program to expand, according to DiNapoli, who said the program has the potential to be a model for communities across the state.

“A key piece of this is not only the technology, but it’s also informing the community so that people know this is an option that is available to them,” he said. “It’s a relatively new initiative, there’s still a ways to go … but Schenectady seems to always be on the cutting edge of using technology in helpful ways to benefit the residents of the city, and I think it has potential to be a model for communities across New York state.”

Mayor Gary McCarthy said diverting patients from the emergency room not only expands treatment options for individuals, but can help reduce expenses for patients since emergency rooms visits can cost thousands. 

McCarthy said the city is also hoping to receive additional reimbursements from Medicaid and other insurers as the program becomes more popular. The city has only received a “few thousand” dollars in reimbursement under the current Medicaid reimbursement model, which requires change on the state level. 

“The current models weren’t designed to create an incentive in place or to be able to take advantage of some of the remote diagnostics and monitoring that are available now,” McCarthy said. “We’re looking to do that where it makes it a more pleasurable experience for the patient and reduces the overall cost by leaving somebody at home as opposed to having to transport them to the emergency room.”

DiNapoli also recognized the cost saving measures of the program.

“I’m very impressed with what the city and fire department here are doing working with local medical providers … which will, I think, provide for better outcomes for many people and will lower costs,” he said.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

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