State hopes $1.7M telemedicine program will boost rural ambulance service

Small town EMS services suffering from poor recruitment, retention of volunteers

By: - November 20, 2022 1:38 pm
Humboldt, SD ambulance services will get a boost from telehealth.

Humboldt, SD ambulance services will get a boost from telehealth. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

South Dakota Emergency Medical Service (EMS) agencies and paramedics hope a partnership between the state and a Sioux Falls-based telemedicine provider will bolster rural ambulance service.

The partnership with Avel eCare addresses questions of viability for South Dakota’s 130 ambulance services.

Several EMS agencies operate in areas up to an hour’s drive away from a nearby hospital, especially in West River. Given the shrinking of rural communities and a dearth of rural EMS volunteers, life-saving services in rural South Dakota are at risk of disappearing.

Gov. Kristi Noem and the state lawmakers approved three initiatives in 2022 that infused up to $20 million into EMS. “Telemedicine in Motion” is the first of the initiatives, at a cost of $1.7 million.

Other initiatives include upgrades to EMS agencies’ LIFEPAK-15 patient monitors and defibrillators and a study of South Dakota’s ambulance services and potential solutions.

Brian Ring, president of the South Dakota EMS Association and a volunteer EMT with Onida Fire Department and Ambulance Service for 25 years, said each of these initiatives are paramount to ensuring the health and safety of South Dakotans.

“When somebody calls for an ambulance, they expect it to show up,” Ring said. “If there aren’t enough people around to command that and run a call, they have to call the next nearest ambulance, which could be from 30 miles away — and that’s if they have enough staff to cover theirs and help with yours. This is a big concern.”

Funding leads to better patient care

The telemedicine program will connect EMS volunteers or employees to board-certified emergency physicians and registered nurses right inside the ambulance.

The Humbolt Fire Department, as seen on Nov. 18, 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
The Humbolt Fire Department, as seen on Nov. 18, 2022. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

“This initiative will improve the coordination of care between our EMS providers and hospitals,” said Joan Adam, DOH cabinet secretary, in a news release.

Humboldt, a town of less than 600 in southeastern South Dakota, will be one of the first EMS agencies to install the video link in its ambulance. The partnership includes free installation, training, software and hardware, as well as support and a telehealth subscription for professional consulting services.

Humboldt Fire and Ambulance relies heavily on volunteers. The service has 34 members, eight of which are trained in advanced life support. Humboldt’s 12 EMTs are volunteers, and most of them double as volunteer firefighters, said Susan Shumaker, paramedic for Humboldt Fire and Ambulance.

The city is a half hour’s drive from the nearest Sioux Falls hospital, but the drive is 45-60 minutes when the volunteers travel to Salem or Bridgewater to intercept or back up those community ambulances.

“(This initiative) is not replacing a person in the back,” Shumaker said, “but that person can get some help or advice on how to treat that patient better. Some volunteers don’t do this very often, so this tool will help make them feel more confident in their treatment.”

Rural ambulance sustainability requires improved recruitment

Shumaker hopes the partnership will help with recruitment. The Humboldt department is faring well, but Shumaker said the crew is smaller than it used to be.

Susan Shumaker, paramedic for Humboldt Fire and Ambulance. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Susan Shumaker, paramedic for Humboldt Fire and Ambulance. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

“If people want to continue to live in these smaller towns, we need to find some recruitment and support to keep these services, or we’re going to lose them,” Shumaker said. “The population of firefighters and EMTs is getting older. This might be some way to help keep volunteers from feeling like they’re thrown out to the wolves, which might make recruitment easier.”

Officials plan to support 60 EMS agencies through “Telemedicine in Motion” by spring 2023. The news release did not state how long the telehealth subscription lasts. Even so, Ring believes the investment will benefit South Dakotans.

“If it gets utilized and is worthwhile, as I expect it will be, I think it’ll be a very good deal for ambulance services in South Dakota,” Ring said. “Time will tell.”



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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.