Rural American hospitals are closing at an unprecedented rate. According to the National Rural Health Association, nearly 700 rural hospitals are at risk of closing. Long drives, increasingly limited resources and extensive waits are already beginning to affect rural populations, especially the most vulnerable. Telehealth—the delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology— is going to be key to ensuring rural residents stay healthy.
This April, the Foundation for Rural Service hosted a rural telehealth summit, which featured a keynote by Tennessee’s HOPE Family Health chief executive officer (CEO) and founder Jenny Dittes, PA-C, as well as a white paper presentation by NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association’s Manager of Economic Research and Analysis Rick Schadelbauer, titled, “Anticipating Economic Returns of Rural Telehealth.”
Schadelbauer’s paper found that the adoption of rural telehealth could provide major benefits to rural communities, including travel expense savings, lost wage savings, hospital cost savings, increased revenues for local lab work and pharmacy services and over-all improved quality of life for rural residents. While this might seem obvious to rural residents, few studies have been done to compile the data on the economic benefits of telehealth for rural America.
Health care is complicated—as is telecom—and telehealth can be a challenge to get already overwhelmed physicians and local clinics to adopt. Dittes shared her own experience of being approached by her local rural telecom provider CEO Nancy White of North Central Telephone Cooperative and asked about the adoption of telehealth services. She asked that other rural telecom providers do the same and asked that they, like White did, show empathy and patience to health care providers, already burdened by many changes within their own industry.
Dittes also emphasized the human impact of telehealth on her community, sharing an interview with a patient who discussed her long drives to and from the hospital for her many visits.
FRS hosted this summit to continue the conversations and share best practices on advancing telehealth, but it will be up to the rural health care facilities and telecom providers to ensure that the services reach their communities.
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