Rural communities are facing ever-increasing challenges in providing the necessary healthcare that their residents need. The lack of resources and a shortage of physicians willing to reside outside of an urban area have made it difficult for those hospitals to remain open. Fortunately, telehealth is making it much easier to provide patients with critically needed services.
Many rural healthcare providers considering these services for their clinic or hospital are concerned about the quality of video conferencing required for implementing any sort of telehealth, as many locations lack the broadband services needed. Fortunately, telehealth and telemedicine does not rely on the general internet, but instead uses an infrastructure that strengthens signals so that video conferencing is made possible without traditional hassles of an internet service in a rural area which may not have the capability of handling regular video conferencing.
Rural hospitals and clinics which have implemented telehealth at their facility are able to use medical platforms that are staffed by physicians 24/7, thereby reducing the burden placed on emergency rooms by patients who do not have a true emergency. Many rural healthcare facilities only have emergency-room services available after normal business hours, making the emergency room the only venue for after-hours healthcare. With a 24/7 platform, those patients can still receive medical care without overwhelming the emergency room staff or having to wait several hours at times to be seen by a physician. Having a 24/7 telehealth platform also allows a physician to collaborate with specialists if needed in an after-hours setting.
Insurance reimbursements are another concern for rural healthcare providers. While technology has grown by leaps and bounds, often times policies have not. Many patients receive Medicare and/or Medicaid and reimbursements for telemedicine services if the patient is actually at a healthcare facility. Medicare and other insurance companies, however, are beginning to see that the use of telehealth is considerably more cost-effective than providing emergency room reimbursements for non-emergencies.
Reducing readmissions is a challenge for many hospitals. If a patient can check in with either a nurse or a physician, changes in the patient’s status can be noticed and taken care of before they have to be readmitted to the hospital. This is even more critical when a patient has lengthy or complicated discharge instructions and the chance of readmission is higher. With remote services, nurses and physicians can determine whether the discharge instructions are being properly followed and recommend any needed course of action accordingly before the patient has to be readmitted.
Since most rural hospitals care for patients who need care from specialists, many types of specialists are readily available on the telehealth services platforms, saving the hospital the anguish of hiring a crew of physicians with varying specialties with a budget that barely allows purchasing gloves. These services can be obtained remotely at a tremendous cost savings for both the hospital and the patient. Specialists are only one tool available remotely – other services that can be utilized remotely are diagnostic analyses, lab work, and direct consultation with a physician from a patient’s home. This allows rural healthcare providers to also receive new patients, those patients who (for several reasons) would not ordinarily make the trip to see a physician.
These patients who typically do not see a physician are a source of revenue that rural hospitals desperately need. Perhaps they do not like the idea of seeing a physician, or they do not have transportation available, cannot afford and/or are not physically well enough to drive to a healthcare facility can be reached through a provider with telehealth services, directly linking them to medical services that they would normally be without. These and other new patients can now be accessed in order to expand the reach of a rural healthcare provider.
The use of in-home monitoring is proving to be a benefit for both the hospital and the patient. Many rural patients need care for chronic conditions (diabetes, heart failure, etc.) that at times can be life-threatening and require repeated hospitalization. Checking in on a patient with in-home monitoring can lessen the chances of that patient having to be readmitted, especially if the hospital is a long drive from the patient’s home and/or the patient’s health status does not permit them to drive to appointments. The patient can also be outfitted with equipment to record and transmit vital signs, glucose levels, etc. which will be vital to a remote consultation.
There are many more benefits to utilizing telehealth services that can be implemented in rural healthcare settings that will allow them to keep their doors open to current patients, access new patients and still operate on their budget. It is becoming increasing critical for rural providers to continue serving patients and access new ones in order to keep their doors open, and telehealth is becoming a fast-growing way to serve the community in a quality and cost-effective manner.