Rural Telemedicine

Telemedicine and Telehealth provide increased access to and quality of healthcare in rural regions. Telemedicine can now enable rural patients to consult specialists without leaving their communities; allows rural clinics, hospitals and practices to take advantage of distant expertise and improves timeliness and convenience of care. The iTelemedicine Guide to Rural Telemedicine and Telehealth provides articles, information and resources to support deployment of telehealth services in rural regions.

An Urgent Need for Rural Telehealth
Most people agree that healthcare should be available to everyone rich or poor, whether they live in the city or the country, regardless of race, age or gender. But today, across the United States, people who live in rural regions are severely underserved and rural healthcare itself is endangered. Heart attacks, strokes, and traumatic injuries all require immediate intervention. An hour or more drive to an urban hospital can be the difference between life and death. This is when the availability of rural telemedicine could make that difference.

Rural Hospital Closures
Throughout the country, rural hospitals are closing, or are in danger of closing and that means rural communities are in a health crisis. With fewer physicians wanting to work in rural areas, small hospital budgets unable to absorb the costs of mandatory electronic health records (EHRs) and many other pressures, rural hospitals are endangered and rural healthcare is in decline. The National Rural Health Association, representing around 2,000 small hospitals throughout the U.S., reports that 48 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, the majority in southern states, and 283 others are endangered.

Rural hospitals also endure multiple conditions that push down profits, making it nearly impossible to arrive at economies of scale. These include reduced populations; a higher percentage of uninsured and elderly patients; the need to pay doctors higher rates to work in remote regions; expensive equipment that is often underused; the absence of high-profit specialty services and a disproportionate burden of emergency and urgent care, which are perennial money-losers.

A Shortage of Rural Healthcare Workers
Rural healthcare facilities face an increasing challenge in maintaining an adequate number of qualified healthcare workers. A nationwide shortage of nurses has existed for some time, but the staff shortage in rural areas extends much further. Nurse practitioners, physician assistants and family medical doctors are in critical demand and extremely short supply in rural areas. Physicians in rural regions face greater pressures than their urban counterparts, including inadequate assistance, over-burdened rotation schedules and lack of modern equipment. Although 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, only 9 percent of physicians practice in rural settings.

Opportunities and Challenges in Rural Telehealth Delivery
Although many factors still hinder the implementation of telemedicine in rural areas, the opportunities are outweighing the challenges and that’s a trend that will continue.

“The shortage of physicians in rural and remote areas provides opportunity for telemedicine to spread its reach to millions of patients and this widespread deployment of services will continue at a rapid pace in the future as well.” indicated Research and Markets, in its recent report Global Telemedicine Market Outlook 2020. “On the contrary, reimbursement challenges, uneven distribution of telecom network in remote areas, and high operating costs are major factors hindering its implementation.” the report found.

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