How Telehealth Benefits Rural Health Centers

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Renae Rossow
Renae Rossow
How Telehealth Benefits Rural Health Centers

How Telehealth Benefits Rural Health Centers

It’s becoming more and more clear that people living in rural areas and our veterans are the types of patients that will benefit the most from the increasing use of telehealth. The Rural Health Information Hub defines telemedicine as the remote delivery of healthcare services and information using telecommunication technology. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of telemedicine in recent years, though it’s actually been around for a very long time. I’ll share a few interesting facts with you. 

Though technically telemedicine began not long after the invention of the telephone in 1876, it was in the ‘60’s that NASA began using telemedicine for monitoring the astronauts and then the term "telemedicine" was actually coined in 1970. After that, The American Journal of Psychiatry published an article identifying the benefits of telepsychiatry which prompted use for that patient population and then the military got on board with telemedicine in the 80’s. But it wasn’t until 1993 that the American Telemedicine Association was founded and then, to show how drastically telemedicine has grown over the years, just last year Kaiser Permanente announced that they had seen more than half of all patient encounters virtually rather than face to face thanks to telemedicine technology. 

And the growth isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. In fact, the global telehealth market is projected to reach more than $9.35 billion by 2021 with the U.S. and European markets being the biggest pieces of that. 

So in addition to this enormous global trend that indicates a major turnaround for the way we deliver healthcare, research is also showing that it may become the preferred method of care – especially for those patients located in rural areas where access to timely healthcare can be a challenge. In a recent study by the University of Missouri School of Medicine, they specifically wanted to understand the satisfaction level of all telehealth users, including the providers, based on the idea that for telemedicine to be truly effective, it must be beneficial to all parties involved. The survey featured three questionnaires, designed for patients, physicians and on-site coordinators involved with the Missouri Telehealth Network, which, by the way, serves 29 clinical specialties at over 200 sites around the state. And here are some of the more notable statistics:

  • 86% of physicians said they were satisfied with the quality of care provided
  • 83% of patients felt they had received good quality of care
  • 78% of patients said they’d use the platform again.  
  • More than 2/3rds of the onsite coordinators stated the system was both easy to set up and use. 

Researchers involved in that study stated that it both confirmed and validated the use of telehealth for rural patients.  

Of course, Like most things that enter the healthcare industry and begin to flourish, Telehealth became the top regulatory issue of 2016. In fact, the Federation of State Medical Boards, which conducted a survey, found that 75% of boards named telemedicine as an important regulatory consideration. The majority of concerns are related to cross-state practice and reimbursement. Telehealth makes it possible for providers to connect with patients in other states. When this happens, the originating site (which is the location of the patient) is considered the “place of service,” and therefore the distant site provider must adhere to the licensing rules and regulations of the state in which the patient is located. 

Most concerns are centered around tristate areas where it is more common for patients to cross state lines for care to see a provider who is not licensed in the state where the patient lives, so a telehealth visit at the originating site might not be acceptable in that case. That’s probably the more common scenario – but I will say that it is also sometimes a concern for when patients are seeing specialists that might be located further away and could, potentially be across state lines. 

As far as the technology itself goes, it’s more than likely one of the easiest services or pieces of technology you will ever add to your center. For the provider, it’s as simple as using skype to make a phone call. And your staff will probably have more experience with telehealth technology than they think as most of them have probably video chatted using different apps that are available for smartphones. Telehealth is not much different than that. 

And as far as your patients go, 77% of Americans own a smartphone compared to 35% just a few years ago. For them, it’s as easy as downloading an app on their phone, and after they set up the appointment, they will receive a text when the doctor’s ready and they’ll open the app and begin the visit.  It couldn’t be an easier process.  

Come back next week for Part 2 of this series and we'll discuss reimbursement for telehealth services some of the specific results that rural health centers have seen from adding telehealth - including major cost savings. We'll also give you a checklist for finding the right service.  

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