One of the greatest challenges facing the healthcare industry isn’t a political issue, it’s a geographic issue. What if I told you that approximately 50 million Americans (17 percent of the total population of the US) have limited access to high quality healthcare because they live in rural communities? Rural healthcare has a unique set of challenges including not only geographic but also economic and lifestyle factors.
Let’s begin with geography and the fact that American’s rural population is spread out over wide distances and served by fewer local doctors and specialists than urban areas. As a result, if someone who lives in a rural area has an accident or gets injured then they may have to travel farther to reach the specialized trauma or emergency services they need. Compounding this is that fact that typically, rural populations tend to have less healthcare coverage than urban populations. When you also consider that rural youth are more likely to use tobacco products leading to long term healthcare issues, it is easy to see the critical need to overcome these healthcare access limitations.
Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is happening. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, between 2010 and 2015, 48 rural hospitals closed and that number has continued to grow over the last two years. While there are also closures in urban sectors, these critical hospital closures have an even greater negative impact on patients in rural communities who now have to travel greater distances to access healthcare….requiring more time, effort and money for the patient to seek treatment.
It is not as though healthcare providers recognize this untapped market. In fact, a recent Healthcare Priorities, IT Impacts and Plans1 report showed that 73 percent of healthcare providers view rural healthcare as a priority but they face a challenge in how to effectively reach, educate and treat people.
This is exactly where technologies like telehealth and Cloud services can come into play in order to help enable rural access to high quality healthcare. In fact, we’re a proud partner in National Health IT Week and its focus on using technology to improve healthcare access, coordination and outcomes. Comprehensive health care reform is not possible without system-wide adoption of health information technology, which improves the quality of healthcare delivery, increases patient safety, decreases medical errors, and strengthens the interaction between patients and healthcare providers.
The history of telehealth solutions in rural communities started with treating high risk patients….most often post-heart surgery patients and stroke victims. The goal was to use telehealth solutions like remote monitoring or virtual consultations so that high risk patients could check-in with the surgeon or specialist and have their vital signs monitored to ensure that they stick to their treatment plan and lower the chance they would need to be readmitted to the hospital.
Today, telehealth has evolved to include additional patient care groups including mental health, maternity and even primary care. This trend is also echoed in the Healthcare Priorities report which showed that 70 percent of healthcare decision makers indicated that the use of telehealth solutions was a priority, and 43 percent indicated that they have already implemented video solutions for physician consultation and collaboration.
This is where the power of digital connectivity and its importance in enabling successful telehealth solutions comes into play. Internet access and Ethernet services, delivered over a fiber network, provide high bandwidth, reliability, and minimal latency required to enable real-time video, voice, and other collaborative features that can help improve patient outcomes.
These networks are not being created in a vacuum. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has published guidelines around recommended bandwidths for clinics and hospitals and the good news is that the FCC is also funding broadband connectivity in both rural and urban areas.
As noted above, these remote solutions are not just a future vision; they are already in place in many communities. For example, Spectrum Enterprise has a health system client that deployed fiber-based Ethernet and Internet access to expand the reach of their stroke network across the entire state. Known as eICU, this was one of the first telehealth applications deployed to treat stroke victims. The eICU telehealth solution provides two-way audio, two-way video, and access to imaging to connect the onsite responders treating a stroke victim with trained stroke neurologists within the critical ‘Golden Hour’.
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Let’s take telehealth connectivity one step further and into the cloud. Decision makers at many hospitals and large medical practices are facing a key choice…do they allocate their limited budgets on improved clinical space or on new IT infrastructure? Most often, healthcare providers will choose to spend their IT budgets on clinical space rather than infrastructure and choose instead to outsource their datacenters to the cloud. This model includes cloud datacenter solutions for storage of patient data and secure mobility solutions for the viewing of the data.
Cloud services are also a good fit for newer telehealth solutions like tele-burn, tele-psych and trauma services that require minimal latency. The increasing number of telehealth applications clearly shows that with the proper bandwidth and secure connectivity, geography no longer needs to be a barrier to the delivery of high-quality healthcare.
To learn more about the impact of connectivity on rural hospitals and the promise it holds, listen to this webinar from HIMSS Analytics highlighting the results of a research study into the impact of connectivity on rural hospitals.
1 2017 Healthcare Priorities, IT Impacts and Plans: The key ‘hot topics’ for healthcare providers in the coming year – 2017 Market Strategies International.
With 20-plus years of program and product management experience, Theresa Dudley is the Manager of Healthcare Programs at Spectrum Enterprise. She stays current with healthcare industry trends and represents Spectrum Enterprise at healthcare conferences and events.