Facsimile machines the new rage in business communication - are being used in Utah County to deliver state-of-the-art health care to patients in rural areas.

The perinatal outreach program at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center has established 18 facsimile links with rural hospitals throughout the state as well as with hospitals in Idaho and Wyoming. The system, the most extensive in the country, according to hospital officials, allows the hospitals to transmit medical records and documents to specialists at UVRMC."We get 10 calls a day asking what to do (about a particular situation)," said Dr. Steven L. Clark, director of perinatology. "There are some consultations that don't lend themselves to telephone consultation."

Analyzing fetal heart rate patterns is one of them.

Over the past three years, Clark has been able to consult with physicians as far away as Evanston and San Pete County about the condition of unborn babies as revealed through fetal heart rate strips sent from the outlying hospitals to UVRMC via facsimile machines. In order to be always accessible to rural physicians, Clark even has a machine at home and carries one with him when he travels.

"In the past they had to describe what the strip looked like, and we had to guess . . . do our best," Clark said. "We have found that most strips are OK and it has led to a decrease in the Caesarean section rate."

While facsimile machines have been around for over 10 years, they have been refined over the past two years so that they can send and receive information. They are being put to various uses, ranging from sending business documents across the country to transmitting fast-food lunch orders across a city. They have also been modified to send long strips of paper like that used in adult and fetal cardiac monitoring.

"A reaction commonly expressed to us by both doctors and nurses is that the availability of facsimile units makes them feel much less isolated and more in touch with their colleagues," said Shannon Francis, coordinator of the perinatal outreach program. "It's reassuring to be able to obtain help and advice whenever it is needed. In some cases, the unit has allowed successful management of a patient at the local hospital when transfer to the major center would otherwise have been crucial."

While use of facsimile machines began in the perinatal unit at UVRMC, use of the machines has expanded to other areas, such as the coronary unit and the emergency room.