August 22. 2017 12:48AM

Telemedicine technology enables former NH surgeon to treat patients from Alaska

Union Leader Correspondent

A nurse or medical assistant is trained to complete a basic physical exam while Dr. Thomas Kleeman is watching, coaching and asking questions during a telemedicine visit. (COURTESY)

BEDFORD — The Last Frontier may be 4,000 miles away from New Hampshire, but a former Bedford surgeon who recently relocated to Alaska is utilizing telemedicine technology to continue treating patients here.

“The technology has existed and the infrastructure seems to be applicable to this kind of utilization for medical purposes,” said Dr. Thomas Kleeman, an orthopedic spine surgeon and founder of the New Hampshire NeuroSpine Institute in Bedford.

Thanks to telemedicine, Kleeman, 69, is still treating patients in New Hampshire, despite his recent move to Alaska with his wife, Anne.

While contemplating retirement, Kleeman said he was sensitive to the fact that many of his longtime patients — some of them he has been seeing for more than 20 years — had developed a close tie with him.

The thought of abandoning them and wishing them luck with their future medical needs was not appealing.

“This really weighed heavily on me,” he said.

Telemedicine technology enables Kleeman to treat patients through a new service launched by Androscoggin Valley Hospital and its partnership with Catholic Medical Center and the New Hampshire NeuroSpine Institute.

The initiative allows Kleeman to treat patients at Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin from his new office in Alaska.

“In this day and age, people don’t seem to have any problem talking to a person on a computer or cell phone screen as opposed to physically being there,” said Kleeman. Patients visit an exam room equipped with a portable computer that has a sophisticated remote camera connected to Kleeman’s computer software.

It permits the surgeon to view, zoom and examine areas of a patient, study incisions and have direct conversations. This process is eliminating a three-hour drive to Manchester for many patients, according to Kleeman.

A nurse or medical assistant has been trained to complete a basic physical exam while Kleeman is watching, coaching and asking questions during the visit.

“That nurse becomes my hands,” he said, adding it is a critical part of the exam. “As long as I can come across on the screen in a friendly, communicative way that they can immediately feel comfortable with, they are at ease.”

Patients in the North Country are already able to schedule office visits with Kleeman from CMC offices at Androscoggin Valley Hospital. In addition to having local consultations, patients are able to remain in their community for related lab work, radiology, pain interventions, physical therapy and follow-up visits, according to a news release.

“We are excited to offer this service to our patients as part of our commitment to increasing access to high quality care,” Keith Shute, chief medical officer and senior vice president at Androscoggin Valley Hospital, said in a statement.

“People know and trust Dr. Kleeman. It’s a tremendous asset for our patients — many of whom are suffering from severe back pain — to be able to ‘see’ him without having to travel out of the area for that level of expert care.”

Kleeman said he will still be traveling to New Hampshire about once a month to treat some patients and conduct surgeries. Meanwhile, he is continuing work with a spine surgeon in Alaska.

“Surgery is a major violation of the human body, and people don’t submit to it easily. Especially if they have a good outcome, they don’t want anybody else to touch them or see them,” Kleeman said, stressing the importance of continued contact with his patients in the Granite State.

Joseph Pepe, president and CEO of Catholic Medical Center, described Kleeman as a true innovator in his field. Pepe said he is pleased that Kleeman is continuing to pioneer with CMC.