The Federal Communications Commission has given the University of Utah $9 million to expand the Utah Telehealth Network, which uses technology to connect doctors and patients in rural areas with medical specialists in the state's urban hubs.

The existing network has more than 30 sites, including about 15 at telemedicine partner Intermountain Healthcare's facilities. Those sites include rural hospitals, clinics, locallocal health departments and urban hospitals, as well as the prison. Telemedicine technology includes video conferencing, transmission of digital images, direct patient care and consultation, education services and security features.

The grant will be used to switch existing sites to Ethernet, which will greatly improve speed and the amount of data that can be exchanged quickly, and to add as many as 50 more sites statewide, according to Dr. Marta Petersen, medical director for UTN and a professor of dermatology at the U.

UTN plans to overhaul the network to increase speed, capacity and reliability. The reconfiguration, being called Utah ARCHES (Advancing Rural Connections for Healthcare and E-health Services), should be completed in 2011.

UTN has, for more than a decade, connected patients and providers in rural areas of the state with specialists, using not only video conferencing, but also the ability to transmit electronic records and images that are needed for a meaningful consultation.

Telemedicine is particularly valuable when there are severe stroke, burn or trauma patients in a rural area with urgent need of evaluation by a specialist, Petersen said during a press conference announcing the award Wednesday at the U.

Because of telemedicine, people can access high-quality care in medically underserved and often poverty-stricken areas like San Juan County, said Donna Singer, CEO of the Utah Navajo Health System. She and a patient joined the news conference from the Montezuma Creek Clinic, using UTN video conferencing.

The Navajo system uses technology for everything from joint staff meetings involving the four far-flung UNHS clinics, to expert analysis of retinal eye exams for the many patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, to having an urban radiologist read mammograms.

Before the clinics and telemedicine, said a patient identified only as Vicki, "our people had to travel quite a distance to get care, sometimes as far as 90 miles (one way). Having all the services here makes it a lot easier on the patient."

The network provides "levels of care normally only available in major metropolitan areas," said Intermountain vice president Jon Hoopes.

University Health Care and Intermountain will share the leadership role in expanding the program. Other partners include the Utah Hospitals and Health Systems Association, the state of Utah, UNHS and the Association of Utah Community Health.

The FCC requires Utah ARCHES to come up with 15 percent matching funds to cover the entire cost of expansion.

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