REC experts discuss access to rural, underserved communities

By Patty Enrado
11:22 AM

While the Regional Extension Center (REC) program was designed to assist priority primary care providers in small practices, hospitals and public health clinics, some industry groups worry that rural communities and communities of color will still be left behind the digital transformation.

At a session of the National Regional Extension Centers & Health Information Exchange Summit West in San Francisco on Monday, a panel of REC leaders and stakeholders showed what they're doing to engage those populations.

A study by HITREC-LA, one of three RECs in California, found that safety-net primary care physician practices handle 63 percent of ethnic minority patient visits, according to Sajid Ahmed, director of health IT for L.A. Care, the country’s largest public health plan.

Not surprisingly, these practices are lagging in electronic health record adoption. “We need a robust outreach strategy and planning,” he said. HITREC-LA is leveraging L.A. Care Health Plan’s resources and infrastructure.

Ahmed pointed out the need to create innovative ways to reach out to these providers to show how EHR adoption promotes care. With 83 percent of local residents, mostly Latinos, having Internet-enabled mobile phones, social media is just one way to engage this community, he said.

The Illinois Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center Collaborative (IL-HITREC) is one of two RECs in the state. Whereas CHITREC covers the Chicago area, IL-HITREC targets the rest of the state, which includes rural areas that don’t have broadband access, according to Roger Holloway, senior consultant for Midwest Consultant for Rural Health and executive director of Northern Illinois’ Rural Health Resource Services.

While IL-HITREC markets and educates through newsletters, mail and e-mail, webinars and regional meetings, Holloway said face-to-face contact is the most successful way to engage rural providers.

The Washington, D.C.-based National HIT Collaborative for the Underserved was established to ensure that health IT serves minorities and people of color and helps eliminate disparities, according to COO Marcia Thomas-Brown.

Whereas 34 percent in the United States are in communities of color in 2008, the number is expected to jump to 50 percent by 2050, she said.

“We must leave no community behind,” she said.

Ignoring the issue, she said, could lead to increased chronic diseases and medical costs.

The collaborative is partnering with selected RECs to push the message across that health IT will help providers in these communities improve quality of care and increase efficiencies and effectiveness, said Thomas-Brown.

To date, the collaborative is working in teams with HITREC-LA, the South Florida REC and the Georgia Health IT REC to gather demographic and provider data through environmental scans, she said.

The teams also interview providers to understand what motivates them. It’s crucial to communicate with providers in their own environment, which often requires teams to attend social events in the community, said Thomas-Brown.

“We stand on the leg of partnership,” she added, which helps the Collaborative and RECs develop more effective, team-based outreach and education strategies."