In many rural areas, the only doctor on call for emergency room visits may be a general practitioner, not an emergency care doctor, but a long-distance service using Skype to connect ER doctors with remote hospitals is now helping local doctors treat their patients.

Small-town hospitals may not have adequate critical care personnel for emergencies, but Avera Health Network is supporting doctors to care for emergency room patients by attending to them virtually, via Skype. According to The Atlantic, Avera is the only long distance ER care center in the U.S., and their "telemedical" services use hi-def video conferencing software from Skype to connect their critical care experts with the doctors on the ground in rural locations.

"Their [Avera's] four main services — eConsult, eICU Care, eEmergency, and ePharm — are set up to provide resources and support to the 10 percent of America's doctors currently serving the 25 percent of the country's population that resides in rural areas."

For residents of some rural areas, an emergency trip to a large hospital may entail a long drive (200 miles, for some areas), which may further endanger the patient, so this remote doctoring service can have the potential for life-saving and timely treatment for critical care patients.

Doctors attending to patients via this virtual intensive care service are able to make assessments, view X-rays and other diagnostic tests, administer prescriptions, and even view patients in their rooms with remote video cameras. Avera says that by using the long-distance service, rural hospitals have seen an 18 percent decrease in transfers to major hospitals, for a savings of about $6.6 million.

The eMergency services from Avera are now available in 62 hospitals across the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, and, according to Avera, have enabled the remote treatment of more than 4,200 patients so far. Avera was recently awarded a Most Wired Innovator Award from Hospitals & Health Networks magazine for these services.

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This story was originally written for Treehugger. Copyright 2012.