Telehealth can aid population health growth in rural areas

April 17, 2017

New study highlights the challenges of taking care of rural patients and opportunities for rural providers to utilize telehealth.

Telehealth has brought significant savings to rural hospitals, a new report from NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association concludes. The technology is also proving to be pivotal to the growth of population health initiatives aimed at providing care to chronically ill rural residents in need of specialty care.

The report, Anticipating Economic Returns of Rural Telehealth, notes that the national average estimates for cost-related savings annually per medical facility from telehealth include travel expense savings of $5,718, lost wages savings of $3,431 and hospital cost savings of $20,841.

The Arlington, Va.,-based organization, which represents more than 800 independent, community-based telecommunications companies, said in its report that annually at medical facilities, telehealth also boosts local revenue for lab work from $9,204 to $39,882 per type of procedure, and local pharmacy revenues also jump from $2,319 to $6,239 depending on the specific drug prescribed.

Not only are small practice rural physicians dependent on a network of local hospitals, community centers and other medical facilities to support their efforts to attend to patients, but they are also relying on high-speed reliable broadband networks for videoconferencing and the capture, storage and transmission of patient data.

“If small practice physicians want to participate in population health programs in rural communities, telehealth gives them the opportunity to improve the health outcomes of their patients while closing the health disparity gap among urban and rural populations,” said Rick Schadelbauer, manager of economic research and analysis at NTCA, and the report’s author.

 

Next: The challenges facing rural patients

 

The report, which relied on data from The U.S. Census Bureau, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources noted that overall chronic disease afflicts rural residents disproportionally. The report notes that heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke were the five leading causes of death in the U.S. between 1999 and 2014. CDC estimates that annual age-adjusted death rates for these five causes were higher in rural areas than in urban centers between 1999 and 2014. 

At the same time, while there is high demand for the services of small practice physicians, rural areas are facing hospital closures. According to the National Rural Health Association, more than 70 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. In addition, the rate of closures is accelerating-six times higher in 2015 than in 2010.

“Many rural hospitals are closing and rural populations are simultaneously facing an increased demand for health care and a reduced supply of healthcare,” Schadelbauer says. “Telehealth is one piece of the potential solution to addressing that problem.”

Schadelbauer added that rural physicians can learn from the report’s list of non-quantifiable benefits to be derived from telehealth, such as patients can gain access to specialists in a convenient way without the hassle of traveling long distances. Additionally, the availability of telehealth allows patients to be diagnosed and treated faster while staying in their communities.

“Telehealth also gives doctors in rural communities the opportunity to work with healthcare experts in varying medical fields which helps alleviate the sense of isolation that many physicians in rural areas experience,” Schadelbauer added. “Research also shows that telehealth improves outcomes, lowers costs and raises the health care experience.”