The Southwest Telehealth Resource Center – a division of the nationally renowned Arizona Telemedicine Program – received $325,000 in federal funding to help advance the use of telehealth and telemedicine throughout five Southwestern states.

The grant will support the Southwest Telehealth Resource Center (SWTRC) from Sept. 1, 2016, through Aug. 31, 2017. The funding comes from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The SWTRC was established in 2009 to bolster the work of the Arizona Telemedicine Program (ATP) in underserved and rural communities in Arizona and its neighboring states: New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

The SWTRC assists start-up telehealth programs as well as existing programs in hospitals, clinics, public health offices and private-practice health-care providers in the broader Southwest region. The SWTRC provides information and technical assistance to health-care providers in various communities – including the Navajo Nation – as they set up telehealth programs for the first time, or as they expand existing services.

“Telemedicine is a growth industry today,” said Ronald S. Weinstein, MD, founding director of ATP. “Advances in technology have moved us center stage.”

In Arizona, which is mostly rural and has one of the most dire physician shortages in the nation, the Arizona Telemedicine Program has saved patients and physicians from long commutes, while making it possible for patients to receive timely care – be it routine or life-saving – and at a fraction of the usual cost, Weinstein said, who is the principal investigator for this award and serves as the director for SWTRC.

The utilization of telemedicine and its younger counterpart, telehealth, has exploded over the last 20 years in Arizona and around the nation. The American Telemedicine Association calculates that as many as 15 million Americans received telehealth care in 2015, a 50 percent increase from two years earlier, Weinstein noted.

The Arizona Telemedicine Program was established in 1996 with funding from the Arizona Legislature, and quickly became an international leader in the “virtual” delivery of health care and long-distance learning opportunities for physicians and other health-care professionals.

“In 20 years, the Arizona Telemedicine Program has established telecommunications connections with 170 sites in rural and urban Arizona, including hospitals, clinics, public health departments and schools,” Weinstein said.

The terms telehealth and telemedicine often are used interchangeably, but telemedicine most often refers to clinical care, while telehealth more often applies to non-clinical services, such as continuing medical education and “distance-learning” sessions, which typically are broadcast to multiple sites.