KU medical program uses planes to provide treatment for rural Kansans

David Emig, and his wife, Monica, at the Goodland Regional Medical Center, where he underwent chemotherapy as part of a Kansas University Medical Center program. He said he was grateful to be able to get the treatment close to home. Emig died Feb. 3.

? Three years ago, David Emig, a retired sheep farmer near Goodland, wasn’t feeling well and went to see his doctor in nearby Burlington, Colo.

The bad news was Emig had cancer.

Better news was that he wouldn’t have to endure travel to Hays, Denver or Kansas City to have chemotherapy.

Emig could go to Goodland Regional Medical Center and be under the watchful eye of his oncologist, Dr. Prakash Neupane, who was more than 400 miles away at the Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.

“Well my goodness, here we are out here in Nowheres, and we got care from KU Medical Center,” Emig said in January. “I got to take my chemo, and I’m only 14 miles from home. This is real nice.”

For several decades, KU Medical Center has had a program that allows doctors who specialize in serious diseases to treat patients in rural areas via a video conferencing system and then fly to those areas, generally once a month, to examine patients in person.

KU’s rural medical outposts are in Salina, Hays, Goodland and Garden City.

KU also flies doctors from Wichita to Pittsburg and Wichita to Garden City as part of the Ryan White HIV Satellite Clinics program.

One of the reasons KU leaders say it’s important to own planes is to enable medical staff to reach those far-flung locations in an efficient way.

Without KU’s help, many families who need to see oncologists, orthopedic specialists, pediatric cardiologists and other doctors might not have that chance because of a shortage of those types of doctors in rural areas.

“For a number of families, it is an economic hardship to come to Kansas City,” said Bob Cox, a pediatrician and one of KU’s pioneers in telemedicine. “Many only make minimum wage. That is a significant economic burden.”

Last fiscal year, eight doctors flew to KU’s outposts 85 times and saw about 1,300 patients, according to KU Medical Center. One doctor typically sees 12 to 25 patients in a daylong visit, said a KU Medical spokeswoman.

In all, medical staff flew 643 trips at a cost of $1.6 million for medical outreach clinics and medical continuing education between July 1, 2009, and Sept. 30, 2014. The trips were on KU-owned jets, planes in which KU has a fractional ownership, and planes owned by the state.

Ryan Spaulding, associate vice chancellor for community engagement, said there also are economic benefits to those communities if people can stay home and spend their money there. In addition, prescriptions, lab work and other treatment-related expenses also stay local.

“We started this a long time ago but even now it is even more important with health reform and the cost of health care,” Spaulding said.

Dr. Neupane said for patients who are extremely ill, travel can be harmful.

“Quality of life is essential,” he said. “For example, with chemotherapy treatment, stress is not good.”

Not having to travel for chemotherapy treatment was something Emig was thankful for.

Emig, 73, did have to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a couple years ago to have his bladder and prostate removed. The subsequent chemotherapy treatments were in Goodland.

On Jan. 9, Emig and his wife, Monica, were at the Goodland clinic to see Dr. Neupane. A test had come back showing a possibility that the cancer was returning.

Still they hid their concerns well, reminiscing and joking about their years together.

“It ain’t just me,” Emig said. “I have talked to other people who have taken this chemo, and they are so thankful they don’t have to go to Denver and some other place to get it. This outreach thing has been really, really nice.”

Emig died Feb. 3.

Four-part coverage of KU plane ownership and usage