Telemedicine in Rural Areas: What is the Connection?

January 5, 2018

Access to Health Care Is Diminishing in Rural Areas

Access to quality health care services is critical to good health. Yet, for the 19.3 percent of the population (about 60 million people) who live in rural areas, the access to health care is far less than that available to people living in urban areas. In America, rural areas have only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 people in urban areas. And, when it comes to hospitals in rural areas, the news is even worse. More than 48 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and another 283 are in danger of closing. Residents report noticing that small towns that used to have hospitals now have none.

Why Are There So Few Doctors In Rural America?

Much of the rural United States faces a severe shortage of doctors and dentists. For instance, the state of Kansas has five counties with no doctors at all.

The federal government has designated 6,000 rural areas in the U.S. with a shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S., and 4,000 areas with a shortage of dentists.

The truth is, there is a shortage of doctors willing to work in remote areas. Many physicians cite the isolation that doctors may experience when they practice in a small town. Others feel they may fall behind the latest technological and medical advances if not located within reach of a major medical facility in an urban area. If there was a way to keep physicians connected to other medical professionals and technological advancements used in urban hospitals, more may opt for a more pastoral lifestyle in a rural area.

Other Barriers That Affect Health Care in Rural Areas

For years, population in rural areas of the U.S. has been declining. There is also a higher percentage of uninsured and elderly patients in rural areas. As a result, medical providers have a hard time financially supporting a medical practice, or the purchasing of high-tech medical equipment due to the underuse of facilities. For the same economic reasons, those living in rural areas also experience a shortage of medical specialists. When many medical emergencies or severe health crises occur in rural areas, the patient suffers or the outcomes of treatment decline due to the time it takes for the patient to be transported to an urban area where appropriate medical care is available.

Telemedicine Provides Rural Areas Access to Health Care

Telemedicine is, essentially, a remote doctor-patient interaction. It is where health care providers employ all the communications provided by the internet to help patients receive access to medical care, no matter where they are located geographically. This is why many believe telemedicine may save small hospitals that are struggling, and provide quality care to patients, right in their homes.

Reports have found that, when patients in a rural area discover their local, small town medical facility is using telemedicine, a few things begin to happen, including:

  • Increased volume at hospitals.
  • Higher regard for the facility by patients once they know specialists from urban facilities will be available to consult on their cases.
  • Quality of care at these smaller hospitals increases
  • Costs to patients are reduced due to fewer readmissions and unnecessary emergency room visits
  • In-home monitoring of chronic diseases. Patients no longer need to drive long distances to see a doctor or nurse just to have blood drawn or have their vital signs checked. Telehealth services can offer devices that take these measurements at home and send results to the doctor or nurse electronically over the internet. This reduces the amount of actual visits made directly between the health care professional and the patient. In areas where this is being used, response and intervention times have improved significantly.

Telemedicine Can Reduce Operating Costs for Health Care Facilities

Telemedicine reduces operating costs to small town health care facilities by providing them with access to specialized staff and technology they would not otherwise be able to support, financially.

In one study, 24 hospitals in rural areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas reported that telemedicine brought a positive annual economic impact of at least $20,000 per year, and as much as $1.3 million annually. Most of these savings were attributed to increased lab and pharmacy revenues from additional work performed locally.

A Few Challenges Remain for Telemedicine in Rural Areas

There are a few obstacles that exist before telemedicine can really level the playing field between rural and urban areas when it comes to having access to health care. They include:

  • One of the most obvious is the lack of stable, or sometimes any broadband in rural areas. This is needed for the doctors and technicians using telemedicine to be able to communicate with rural areas.
  • Another challenge is reimbursement by insurance companies, Medicaid and Medicare for medical services provided via telemedicine delivered by medical facilities or private providers. Currently, there is no standard system to provide for this. You would need to check with your insurance company to see if they will cover telemedicine services.

If you are interested in receiving more information about how telemedicine can provide better access to quality health care to rural areas, please call TeleMed2U at 855-446-TM2U (8628). They will be happy to explore how you might utilize telemedicine to improve health care access in your rural community.