Living in the country, far from crowded cities, may be peaceful and quiet. But what if you’re sick and need treatment by a specialist who doesn’t have an office nearby?

For a person with hepatitis C or some other form of serious liver disease, this question is crucial because these conditions are traditionally treated by liver specialists or specialists in infectious disease. If you live far from the cities where such specialists tend to settle, doctor visits are challenging—especially when you have liver disease, which often requires repeat visits for treatment.

For a University of Michigan gastroenterologist, Grace L. Su, MD, finding a solution was a personal quest. After a patient of hers died because he couldn’t make it to a follow-up visit, she was determined to research how technology could solve the problem. She knew that videoconferencing, which connected primary care doctors in remote areas with highly trained specialists in other parts of the country, had been shown to help patients with hepatitis C.

But Dr. Su, who is also chief of gastroenterology at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, wanted to study whether this form of telemedicine would work for patients with other liver diseases, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and other forms of hepatitis.

Study results: Patients with primary care doctors who used videoconferencing were more likely to receive screening for liver cancer and other serious complications of liver disease…and these patients were 46% less likely to die than patients who did not have a specialist visit during the nearly four-year follow-up period.

Bottom line: While this study focused on patients with liver disease, long-distance consultation with other medical specialists is widely available and could also be potentially lifesaving.

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