How rural hospitals can navigate telehealth expansions, limit health disparities

While telehealth has proved essential to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among both patients and providers, virtual care initiatives are failing to reach certain rural hospital patients.

In a June 26 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, East Lansing-based Michigan State University and Traverse City, Mich.-based Munson Healthcare researchers highlight the issues with telehealth expansion in rural areas.

"The massive shift to telehealth and reliance on virtual connections in these times of social isolation may have created an additional health disparity for the millions of rural Americans without access to necessary broadband to deploy digital technologies," the authors wrote.

Four report insights:

1. Thirty-three percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband internet, which is needed to support video-based telehealth visits. In Michigan, almost 40 percent of rural residents do not have access to high-speed internet, compared to 3 percent of individuals living in Michigan's urban areas.

2. America's digitally isolated regions with limited access to broadband also have a higher number of individuals with chronic conditions, including obesity and diabetes, "suggesting a double burden where those with the lowest connectivity have the highest need," the authors wrote.

3. To navigate broadband access issues in rural areas, Munson Healthcare began offering telephone visits as a replacement for video visits with similar reimbursement rates.

4. Munson Healthcare is also exploring giving patients the option to drive to a designated location such as one of the health system's clinics to complete a video visit in their car by getting access to reliable internet connection.

More articles on telehealth:
Telemedicine visits on steady decline, report finds: 5 details  
Physician viewpoint: During time of rapid telemedicine transformation, we must 'anchor ourselves' in personal interactions
67% of patients say telemedicine is better than in-person visits, survey finds 

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