Individuals living in rural communities want to stay there. And why not! Ask most rural residents, and they’ll have a long list of the reasons they love their rural community.
And nearly 80% of rural small business owners agree the quality of life and cost of living is much better in rural areas, according to the U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center.
All this is true despite the ways rural communities quantitatively lag behind their metropolitan counterparts — for example, access to healthcare providers like hospitals, primary doctors, and specialists.
Access to healthcare is necessary for a thriving community, and residents in rural areas deserve equal access to quality healthcare. So how do rural areas overcome any gaps in healthcare access?
Telehealth offers impactful methods of providing healthcare and outreach to rural communities.
What Is Telehealth?
The telehealth definition used in this article is the delivery of healthcare to individuals over a high-speed internet connection.
In addition to having virtual meetings with healthcare providers, other types of services include:
- telemedicine (the provision of remote medical care via the Internet and video conferencing),
- electronic medical record keeping, and
- portal technology and videoconferencing.
Remote health monitoring tools such as wearables and biosensors that track and report personal health information have also become commonplace for remote health care.
Combined, these methods of communicating with healthcare providers help close the rural-urban healthcare access divide.
Before we examine the benefits of telehealth in rural areas, let’s talk about rural healthcare in general.
What Does Healthcare Look Like in Rural Communities?
Regardless of community size, access to routine healthcare and preventative care have long-term, positive impacts on a person’s health. Additionally, when healthcare resources are commonplace, a community flourishes.
Rural communities, however, are experiencing barriers to commonplace healthcare provisions. Unfortunately, hospitals across rural America are closing at an alarming rate.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, over 100 rural hospitals closed from 2013 to 2020, forcing people living in those areas to travel farther to get the same healthcare services — about 20 miles farther for services like inpatient care and double that for services like alcohol or drug abuse treatment.
People living in rural communities have limited access to healthcare institutions, travel long distances to receive care, and (because of these factors) often delay needed care until after they have a health emergency. The cost associated with traveling for medical care puts an additional burden on rural patients that may discourage them from seeking care.
Limited access to healthcare can result in poor health outcomes and is a social and economic burden for both the patient and the healthcare system at large.
Advancements in telehealth – and expanding those services to rural communities – can be used to make up for expanding gaps in health services.
What Are the Benefits of Telehealth in Rural Communities?
People in rural America are growing increasingly comfortable with telehealth and telemedicine.
Telehealth is already an effective approach for doctors to monitor their patients’ chronic conditions, like heart or lung disease. Better monitoring can improve quality of life and reduce hospital admissions and deaths from chronic diseases.
Rural hospitals have fewer resources to provide their patrons, such as specialists or outpatient programs. But telehealth empowers rural hospitals to partner with larger hospitals, work with established online programming for outpatients, and connect to specialists in other communities to make up for these gaps in service.
Telehealth resources facilitate communication between hospitals, which impacts patient care through communication, recommendations for ongoing care, organ donation, patient transport, and more.
The CDC recognizes telehealth as a critical resource for healthcare, both now and in the future, especially for providing care specifically to rural Americans. Because of this, the organization offers various telehealth services targeting common health issues common to rural residents.
One example is the CDC telehealth stroke services which connect hospitals in rural areas with telehealth doctors and specialists outside of their communities to improve the outcomes of patients receiving treatment after experiencing a stroke.
In an effort to expand telehealth to institutions, the CDC has created case studies (HabitNU, Inova, and Inspera Health) that describe successful program structure, technologies used, and implementation steps, along with lessons learned.
But every rural resident isn’t comfortable with talking to their doctor without being face to face.
Why Are Rural Residents Wary of Online Telehealth?
Telehealth is a relatively new healthcare field, and some patients are suspicious of its drawbacks.
According to one review of telehealth interventions and outcomes across rural communities, disadvantages of telehealth interventions included having telemedicine visits with unknown providers and technological issues such as loss of connectivity and limited Wi-Fi access.
Rural residents place a high value on members of their own communities and can be wary of meeting with unfamiliar healthcare providers.
However, acceptance of telehealth during the pandemic accelerated to the point that many barriers to telemedicine use – including trust – may have begun to disappear. Furthermore, telehealth is now available almost everywhere, meaning patients can connect to primary care providers with whom they have an established relationship!
However, along with the other limitations and challenges of telehealth, we can’t forget that the foundational requirement of affordable, accessible broadband and cellular connectivity remains an obstacle.
So, where do rural areas go from here?
Telehealth in Rural Areas: What’s Next?
As telehealth improves, individuals across rural America are empowered to seek healthcare providers more often, preventatively, and consult specialists that meet their unique needs.
One review concluded that telemedicine in rural areas decreases travel time, improves communication with providers, increases access to care, increases self-awareness, and empowers patients to manage their chronic conditions. These benefits are critical to residents in rural communities.
Rural providers also benefit from telehealth as institutions are empowered to expand their provisions by connecting their patients to telehealth resources, decreasing missed appointments and patient wait times, as well as improving patient care quality.
While limitations of telehealth exist, the field is quickly improving and expanding patient care across the country, with unique benefits available to rural communities. Conversations about the impact of programs that close the urban-rural healthcare divide help communities understand successful programs and program pitfalls.
Do you or your organization work in telehealth? What is your experience with telemedicine? We would love to hear from you and share additional resources. We invite you to share your experiences by commenting here and visiting us on Twitter (@RuralRISE).