By Amy Miller, regional director of growth, AMD Global Telemedicine.
With the trend of remote working on the rise and telehealth becoming increasingly significant, high-speed internet has become a fundamental necessity for every community. Despite these advancements, rural Americans are being left behind. According to the Federal Communications Commission, around 17% of rural Americans lack broadband access as of 2019, the most recent data available. Urban Americans without broadband access is in the low single digits. As such, the absence of high-speed internet directly affects the implementation of telehealth in rural areas.
Even more concerning is the fact that rural communities in the U.S. are facing a shortage of healthcare professionals. It is estimated that 4,000 additional primary care practitioners are needed to meet the needs of rural communities. Rural Americans often need to travel long distances to access specialty care in person, but travel is not an option for everyone, leading to delayed care and poor health outcomes. Rural Americans also have higher rates of death, disability, and chronic disease than urban Americans, and are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 infections.
Fortunately, increased broadband access in outlying areas can help patients get the care they need and close the accessibility gap thanks to telehealth for rural communities. As these solutions gain traction, it is now more important than ever to ensure that telehealth options and increased broadband capabilities are implemented as we work to improve rural healthcare.
How Telehealth Solutions Are Closing the Accessibility Gap
Telehealth solutions are already closing the gap in healthcare access for rural citizens in several ways. For example, the technology used in telehealth has improved in recent years, with increased integrations between platforms, medical devices, and EMRs. The platforms themselves have never been more user-friendly. These advancements make it easier and more accessible for patients and providers to use telehealth services.
Furthermore, scalable solutions have provided a greater variety of services. The range of telehealth services available has expanded in recent years, with technology that addresses multiple specialties under a single platform. This also includes more widespread coverage. As telehealth solutions and services have expanded, so have insurance coverage options. These improvements make telehealth a more cost-effective solution for many patients for the right use cases.
There have been several regulatory changes in recent years that have made it easier for healthcare providers to offer telehealth services, such as temporary waivers on certain requirements. All these improvements in technology, insurance, and increased telehealth service offerings have worked together to create more accessible health solutions than ever before.
How to Improve Rural Healthcare With Telehealth Innovations
As telehealth technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see a number of new innovations that will improve healthcare access for rural patients. The following are just a few examples of upcoming innovations that have the potential to enhance telehealth in rural areas:
Moving toward customer-first approaches to telehealth.
Industry consolidation, increased integrations, and tighter partnerships can help to improve access for rural patients by providing a more streamlined, consolidated approach to telehealth. This can make it easier for patients to access care — and for healthcare providers to deliver better care.
Increasing deployment of mobile health clinics.
Mobile health clinics can bring healthcare services directly to rural communities, providing a convenient and accessible way for rural patients to receive care without the high infrastructure costs of a typical facility. These can be mobile vans, buses, small cube-like units, or even a virtual clinic within a shopping center.
Implementing AI and machine learning in telehealth solutions.
AI and machine learning can analyze patient data and provide real-time insights to healthcare providers. This can improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis and enable care to be delivered more efficiently.
Introducing Tele-labs and tele-pharmacies.
Tele-pharmacies use video technology to connect patients with pharmacists and will help to improve access to medication for rural patients, particularly in areas with a shortage of pharmacies. Tele-labs can allow healthcare providers in rural areas to receive timely and accurate diagnostic information, improving the quality of care they can provide to their patients. Tele-Labs can also reduce the need for patients in rural areas to travel long distances to access laboratory services.
Telehealth technology is beneficial for all, yet it has a special significance for individuals living in less-populated rural areas. Telehealth in rural areas provides patients with easy and efficient access to healthcare providers and enables rural healthcare centers to expand their capabilities. With telehealth, healthcare professionals can conduct high-quality checkups and assessments remotely, eliminating many geographic and socio-economic barriers, and ultimately improving healthcare access for many rural communities.