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Telehealth technology improves healthcare access for rural areas

Rural communities often suffer from a lack of healthcare access, and nursing homes in these areas are doubly at risk. Telehealth brings needed services to these vulnerable populations.

Fifteen percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. This equals more than 46 million Americans, some of whom have complex health conditions and must seek care in places where few specialists and physicians practice medicine.

Several factors contribute to the limited access of healthcare services in rural areas, such as lower incomes, lack of transportation and inadequate health insurance. These factors tend to push new physician graduates to bigger cities and metropolitan areas. But telehealth is proving to be just what the doctor would prescribe to tackle this shortage of healthcare providers. And nursing homes in rural areas, in particular, are itching to adopt the technology.

While telehealth technology was initially limited to audio and video conferencing using tools like Skype, today, telehealth platforms are able to collect patient vitals and other health data using connected devices. The technology is also getting a boost from CMS, which is working to promote telehealth services for healthcare organizations in rural areas, with funding and grants to support software and hardware investments. This shows that CMS sees an opportunity for the technology to improve patient outcomes and address gaps in care.

Modern telehealth units bring value to short-term and long-term health facilities

Nursing homes rely on physicians to periodically drop in to examine their residents with health issues. These visits ensure those patients' health needs are monitored and cared for. But, in rural areas, elderly residents are not always able to receive frequent follow-ups, as physicians are often in short supply. This is where telehealth proves to be a viable solution that can bring in remote physicians to increase coverage and help those in need.

There is another advantage to adopting modern telehealth units in nursing homes that have a number of high-fall-risk patients. In case of a fall incident, a telehealth cart can provide immediate access to physicians without having to wait on their arrival. Some mobile carts offer concussion assessment and other useful tests that physicians can use remotely with the assistance of a nurse to immediately assess the condition of the patient.

What are some of the concerns of implementing telehealth technology?

Implementing any new technology initiative requires planning, resources and, of course, funding.   Healthcare facilities like nursing homes do not typically have ample cash on hand to spend on technology upgrades and equipment unless it is deemed necessary. This poses an obstacle for many of them to implement telehealth due to the need for some level of IT infrastructure around wireless, as well as the investment needed for medical devices, cameras and software.  

Another expected hurdle for telehealth technology is around the changes in workflows and processes. Rounding would require nursing staff to assist during examinations to perform the necessary tests using different connected devices. These changes will require more time for staff training, as well as changes to several standard operating procedures for digital rounding.

Finally, the technical challenges relating to lack of broadband access in rural areas can lead to low adoption rates for telehealth, as poor connectivity will result in a nonoperational system.

Telehealth may not solve all health services shortages in rural areas, but it proves to be a viable option to bring specialists and other healthcare providers to the patients without the need for their physical presence.

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