Guest Column | December 18, 2018

Telemedicine: Reaching Rural Communities In A New Way

By Perry Price, Revation Systems

Telemedicine Chronic Disease Management

A few years ago, industry discussions of telehealth’s impact on rural healthcare in America began to surface, begging the question of its ability to transform the experience of patients residing in rural areas across the nation. With so many new capabilities resulting from healthcare’s digital transformation, telemedicine has often been pegged as the solution to close any gaps in providing care for rural patients today. Looking ahead to 2019, it’s important to evaluate what still needs to happen in order to ensure that journey continues to unfold.

A New Wave Of Innovation

Statista projected that in 2018 alone, nearly 7 million people would use telehealth services. And although telehealth solutions provide convenience and flexibility for today’s patients (as opposed to more traditional communication via phone or in-person visits at a clinic), perhaps telemedicine’s most significant opportunity for impact lies in the healthcare delivery in rural communities.

The American Hospital Association reports that as of this year 65 percent of U.S. hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through the use of video and other technology. On top of that, almost every state Medicaid program has some form of coverage for telehealth services today — indicative of the tremendous need for these types of services.

In May 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced its first Rural Health Strategy, which aims to provide a proactive approach to ensure the nearly one in five individuals (60 million) who live in rural America have access to high-quality, affordable healthcare. The strategy focuses on objectives like improving access to care through provider engagement and support, advancing telemedicine services and empowering patients in rural communities to make decisions about their healthcare.

Despite some barriers, emerging telehealth technology may be poised to reach these rural communities in a few new ways.

Where Bandwidth Falls Short, Chatbots Bridge The Gap

Although telehealth solutions such as virtual visits, that allow patients to connect with a provider over video on a computer or mobile device, can be an ideal solution in rural areas, challenges often exist in their deployment.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines “rural” as encompassing all population, housing and territory not included within an urban area (with “urban” meaning areas of 50,000 or more people, or clusters of 2,500 to 50,000 people). Demographically, rural areas also tend to trend toward lower median incomes, higher disability rates and a high proportion of senior citizens. For those patients residing in rural areas, access to high-quality, high-speed internet can be a challenge due to the terrain — which makes the use of video for virtual visits impossible in certain scenarios.

However, recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), specifically related to chatbot engines, are helping to bridge the gap for these patients who can’t access video consultations. According to Gartner, 55 percent of companies will have a chatbot in operation by the year 2020. As a result, chatbots, which simulate conversation with a human through AI, are one way in which technology can improve the delivery of healthcare for rural patients.

For instance, Susan, who resides in a community in rural Oregon without convenient access to transportation and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, could benefit greatly from video visits with her healthcare provider, but does not have access to the right type of internet to enable such services. Susan does, however, have a smartphone and reliable cell service in her area with the ability to use SMS text messaging to communicate with her clinic/provider. Instead of spending the time and effort of traveling a long distance to speak with a provider (and where video visits are not feasible due to weak internet connections), Susan could use her mobile device to text her clinic or provider when she has questions or the need to check in on her condition. The healthcare system’s chatbot technology can field that communication and route her to the appropriate resource, while also extending the hours of service beyond the traditional 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. structure.

A scenario such as Susan’s is quite common within the rural patient population today, making new chatbot technology powerful in its ability to transform communication between providers and patients in rural areas.

Patient Engagement Through Patient-Facing Technology

As leaders in the healthcare industry continue to develop new ways that telehealth technology can improve access and quality of care in rural areas, patient engagement is likely to remain at the forefront of these solutions. Increasing the level of patient engagement is critical to improving the quality of care that a patient receives – from motivating medication adherence to communicating with their provider regarding a chronic condition to drastically decreasing hospital readmission rates.

Fortunately, telehealth advancements are making this simpler and more accessible than ever. In a study performed by PwC in January 2018, 81 percent of payer executives noted that their company is investing in technology to improve member experience. Patient engagement via telehealth is especially important for patients in rural areas.

As digital transformation increases the access that patients have to smartphones and other mobile devices, patient engagement tools are becoming more consumer-friendly than they have been in the past. Although patient portals have been an instrumental tool in increasing patient engagement over the past five years, patients are still seeking tools that give them even more control today — specifically by having access to their electronic health records (EHR) directly from a mobile device as opposed to connecting from a desktop computer.

Health IT providers would be wise to take the desire for accessibility to EHR and medical data into consideration when innovating patient engagement solutions in the year ahead. As they do, rural communities — along with their unique deployment challenges — should also be top-of-mind for health IT providers as they continue to innovate.

As technology becomes more advanced and the rural patient population continues to lack affordable, convenient access to high-quality healthcare, it will be critical for new telehealth technology to think outside the box for solutions that can meet the needs of rural patients.

About The Author

Perry Price is CEO/president of Revation Systems. In this role, Price builds and grows the customer base, recruits qualified talent, and streamlines internal operations. Price utilizes his deep domain expertise in IP networking and communication applications, including telephony, unified communications, call-center technologies, and messaging.