When people think of health services available in a rural setting, their minds often go to primary and emergency care. Although the preceding is true, at Whitfield Regional Hospital (WRH) in Demopolis, Alabama, and over a dozen other rural facilities in the state, UAB Health System’s eMedicine program connects patients to world-class care using telehealth technology, thanks to Dr. Eric Wallace, UAB Medical Director of Telehealth, Director of the UAB Home Dialysis Program, and co-director of the UAB Fabry Disease Clinic.
Dr. Wallace, an Alabama native, is an award-winning nephrologist treating patients with rare kidney diseases, the first in the country to provide telehealth with home dialysis patients in rural areas. Because he knew telehealth was a game-changer for patients, he persisted in breaking down barriers. “I was doing basic science and realized that the dissemination of cutting-edge medical care knowledge took at least ten years to get from the University-standard of care elsewhere,” he shared. “Telehealth could help get all rural areas to state of the art knowledge much faster by having university physicians practice and in doing so, teach directly in rural facilities.”
Under his leadership, the impact of telehealth in rural areas in Alabama has been transformative. Because of his commitments, rural community hospitals have instant access to subspecialty care, which has also helped change their finances. For an appreciable number of them, he is the reason why their doors are still open.
If not for Dr. Wallace and the pre-pandemic telehealth program he’s worked hard to build, it’s not hard to imagine a far worse public health crisis for rural Alabamians. Doug Brewer, the CEO/Administrator of WRH, shared, “Throughout the pandemic, Dr. Wallace and his eMedicine team provided care for more than 600 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and over 120 ventilated patients. Without his leadership and support, we would not have had the infrastructure and resources in place to admit and provide care for as many patients with the virus as we did.” In addition, in 2020, the number of telehealth visits delivered in rural ambulatory settings reached 280,000, another milestone in Dr. Wallace’s pursuit to end health disparities in the state with “amazing health resources and the worst healthcare outcomes.”