How telemedicine is transforming treatment in rural communities

There's no denying it: rural hospitals are in trouble.

More than 48 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to the National Rural Health Association, and another 283 are in danger of closing.

The malaise effecting rural healthcare comes from several vectors. Reduced populations, higher percentage of uninsured and elderly patients, equipment underuse, and the absence of high-margin specialty services makes for a bleak economic outlook. A shortage of doctors willing to work in remote areas creates quality of care and a staffing issues. Then, there is the challenge of getting patients into rural hospitals in a timely manner because travel distances sometimes are too great.

Many believe that telemedicine and mHealth offer a way out for struggling rural hospitals, however.

A 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine for the National Academies, entitled The Role of Telehealth in an Evolving Health Care Environment, found that telehealth drives volume, increases quality of care, and reduces costs by reducing readmissions and unnecessary emergency department visits for rural communities. Through telemedicine, rural hospitals can serve rural patients at better costs and help cut down on the time it takes rural patients to receive care, particularly specialty care.

"When rural patients know their hospital is using telemedicine, they have higher regard for that hospital and are less likely to bypass it for treatment at an urban facility," noted James Marcin, director of the UC Davis Children's Hospital Pediatric Telemedicine Program, a pioneer in remote medicine.

The ways that rural hospitals can take advantage of telemedicine and mHealth technology advancements are many, and include remote consultations, in-home monitoring, outsourced diagnostic analysis, and remote specialist consultations.

Instead of waiting days or weeks for a healthcare professional to travel to a remote area, or traveling into a hospital and waiting for an appointment, telemedicine enables remote physician consultations that are faster, cheaper and more efficient than traditional healthcare appointments. For consultations on simple health concerns, or follow up on existing conditions, remote consultations can dramatically improve the patient experience while helping rural hospital economics at the same time.

The Georgia Partnership for Telehealth, for instance, assesses and treats students so that they do not need to travel to a clinic for healthcare, and currently has replaced more than 350 locations where a traditional doctor's visit was formerly required.

A second way that rural hospitals are leveraging telemedicine is through in-home monitoring. One example is decreased hospitalization rates for seniors enrolled in the FirstHealth Home Care Chronic Disease model in North Carolina. Patients previously diagnosed with heart failure, diabetes, or COPD and who experienced frequent hospitalizations are monitored by telehealth at home between periodic visits from nursing staff. Response and intervention times have improved substantially, according to the program.

Another benefit to struggling rural hospitals is outsourced diagnostic analysis and access to remote specialists. It is difficult for many rural communities to staff their own diagnosticians, but mobile imaging centers and lab specimen kiosks that can take X-rays and perform collections can work in conjunction with remote analysis labs in larger urban areas to bridge the gap.

One study that looked at 24 hospitals in four rural states in the Midwest including Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas found that telemedicine brought an annual economic impact of at least $20,000 per year, with an impact of up to $1,300,000. The majority of these savings came from increased lab and pharmacy revenues due to additional work performed locally.

In addition to outsourced diagnostics, telemedicine also enables consultation with remote specialists at larger, urban hospitals instead of the need for having these specialists on staff. This can be particularly good for attracting doctors to rural hospital settings.

"Telemedicine fosters a collaboration that reduces the feelings of isolation that physicians may experience when they go to practice in a small town," noted Dr. Wilbur Hitt in a report, Telemedicine: Changing the Landscape of Rural Physician Practice. "With telemedicine, it's like having one foot in the city but being able to live and practice out in a rural area. It's also reassuring to know that you're on the right track with the treatment plan and are staying current."

Still, roughly 66 percent of rural hospitals had no telehealth services or were only in the process of implementing a telehealth application when the RUPRI Center for Rural Health Analysis reviewed 4,727 hospitals in the 2013 HIMSS Analytics database. Part of the reason comes from broadband access challenges.

Rural communities not only suffer from a population shortage and a lack of resources, they also typically have trouble with the necessary broadband infrastructure for telemedicine. The benefit of remote consultation by video conference for rural patients is clear, for instance, but these remote consultations amount to nothing if there isn't the broadband infrastructure to support it.

"The ability for physicians to connect with those in areas that don't have much of a wireless connection is the biggest problem when trying to treat these patients," noted Tony Zhao the CEO of Agora.io, a video SDK company that provides easy video conferencing with quality-of-service guarantees so telemedicine and e-learning initiatives work even in rural settings.

"With weak connections, video streams for telehealth are blurry, choppy or just won't work," he added. "Implementing technology that doesn't rely on the general internet but which relies on an infrastructure that strengthens signals in the most remote areas is crucial."

Another barrier for rural hospitals is the challenges that surround reimbursements. Medicare reimbursement is a major challenge for telemedicine, with states each having their own standards by which their Medicaid programs will reimburse for telemedicine expenses.

There is no single standard telemedicine reimbursement system for private payers, either. Some insurance companies value telemedicine and will reimburse for a wide variety of services while others do not.

These and other challenges put a drag on rural telemedicine at the same time as the need for it grows. Rural hospitals have a path toward recovery in the form of telemedicine, but obstacles still remain.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.​

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