ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – When you’re having a stroke, every second counts. A University of New Mexico Hospital program is saving lives by connecting their experts and technology to rural hospitals all across the state, and now, they want to expand it.

Many of New Mexico’s top medical specialists — from cancer care to heart health — are based in Albuquerque. But where does that leave patients in rural areas like Silver City and Wagon Mound?

“There is a lack of specialty exposure to these rural hospitals,” said Dr. Tarun Girotra, a stroke neurologist at UNM and medical director of the UNM ACCESS program. “The fact that these hospitals are mostly rural, they do not have access to a neurologist.”

A program through UNM Hospital is changing that. They’re focusing on the time-sensitive care of detecting and treating a stroke.

“If you look at the entire United States, there are, on an average, about five neurologists per 100,000 population in the country,” said Dr. Girotra. “This deficit is even bigger in New Mexico. And if you talk about stroke neurologists, that’s even fewer. I can count on one hand how many stroke neurologists there are in the entire state and all of them are at University of New Mexico.”

The UNM ACCESS program is changing that through telemedicine. It starts the second someone noticing stroke-like symptoms calls 911.

“If there is a person in Roswell, for example, who is noticing stroke-like symptoms, he or she would call 911, they would be taken to a local hospital,” said Girotra. “As soon as the patient arrives in the emergency room, the emergency room doctors and the nurses, we have worked with them very frequently and we have trained them how to identify suspected strokes.”

The ER staff immediately calls the UNMH Operating Center. In minutes, they’re directed to the neurology team here in Albuquerque, with a specialist evaluating the patient through a portable computer and camera set-up.

“It takes about 5-10 minutes for the patient to arrive to the emergency room and for me to see the patient,” said Girotra. “That patient could be in Roswell, Las Cruces, Farmington.”

Most months, they see more than 250 patients through this virtual program. If the case is severe, they can arrange to have them airlifted to Albuquerque. Now, they’re hoping to advance the program, even more, using artificial intelligence that can review CT scans and detect a blood clot in the brain before doctors are even aware.

“This has significantly shown to cut down the times to treat and transfer patients for complicated stroke procedures,” said Girotra. “We are looking at ways to possibly include these AI tools within our neurology and telestroke program.”

Girotra says the biggest way to get the best treatment to a stroke victim is recognizing those first signs. He says the acronym BE-FAST is the easiest way to remember the symptoms: balance difficulty, eyesight problems, facial weakness, arm droop, speech difficulty, and time.

“A lot of the general population can remember and identify a stroke symptom and bring themselves or their loved one to the emergency room, whether it’s Roswell or Farmington,” said Girotra. “We’ll be ready to see them and evaluate them right away.”

The UNM ACCESS program — which stands for Access to Critical Cerebral Emergency Support Services — now hopes to expand beyond stroke care and eventually provide cardiology consults across the state. They already include, to a certain degree, psychiatry and pediatrics.