Rural patients use telehealth less frequently than urban patients, USDA finds

Telehealth has the potential to support patients in rural areas where physician shortages may make it difficult to access healthcare services. However, rural residents have not been as receptive to remote care services as their urban counterparts, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Researchers from the USDA analyzed household data from 50,000 households comprising more than 130,000 individuals who participated in the U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 Current Population Survey to assess how people living in rural areas use telehealth services.

The analysis, which focused on three telehealth activities practiced by patients aged 15 or olders, found rural residents were less likely than urban residents to engage with telehealth services.

Here are the report's three overarching findings:

1. Seventeen percent of rural residents had conducted online health research, compared to 20 percent of urban residents.

2. Seven percent of rural residents had engaged in online health maintenance activities, such as communicating with providers or medical practitioners, maintaining records, or paying bills. Eleven percent of urban residents had participated in these types of activities.

3. Only 1.3 percent of rural residents had used remote health monitoring devices that exchange data with medical personnel, such as wearables. By contrast, 2.5 percent of urban residents had used these types of devices.

Across the board, individuals with higher levels of education and higher household incomes tended to use telehealth more compared to individuals with lower levels of education and lower incomes.

The researchers said telehealth remains in its infancy today but suggested rates of telehealth use may increase for rural and urban residents as technologies and services associated with remote care continue to improve and as patients become more aware of its existence.

"Resolving the challenges to providing rural healthcare may be vital to ensuring continued rural growth and prosperity," the report concludes. "Rural telehealth, which has rapidly integrated with internet technologies, may pose one solution."

To download the USDA's report, click here.

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