Report offers telehealth as a solution to rural healthcare challenges

A new report indicates rural Americans face an increasing need for quality healthcare at a time when access is proving difficult – and points to telemedicine and telehealth as a possible solution.

The report, issued July 27 by the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization, finds that people living in rural locations face greater difficulty accessing healthcare than their urban and suburban neighbors. In addition, the report indicated rural Americans experience more chronic conditions – such as diabetes and heart disease – and will be more likely to participate in Medicaid and other government-subsidized insurance programs by 2014.

The solution? The Minnetonka, Minn.-based health plan, which serves more than 75 million people worldwide, points to telemedicine and telehealth technologies.

[See also: Survey analysis: Telemedicine crucial part of health IT.]

“The next few years will be times of considerable stress on rural healthcare, but also times of great opportunity, since across the country there are already impressive examples of high-quality care, tailored to the distinctive needs of the local community,” said Simon Stevens, UnitedHealth Group’s executive vice president and chairman of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization, in a press release. “The challenge for all involved in rural America now is to build on that track record of innovation and self-reliance, so as to ensure that all Americans – wherever they live – can live their lives to the healthiest and fullest extent possible.”

The report, “Modernizing Rural Health Care: Coverage, Quality and Innovation,” features a survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, of 2,000 patients and 1,000 primary care physicians nationwide and an analysis from the Lewin Group. It projects an increase of about 8 million insured rural residents by 2019, thanks to Medicaid expansion and state insurance exchanges called for in health reform.

The report calls for new incentives and reimbursement models for rural physicians, a bigger role for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, greater provider collaboration across rural locations and with urban providers, the use of mobile health clinics, rural adoption of electronic health records, market incentives for rural areas and more engagement by rural residents on wellness and preventive health measures.

[See also: UnitedHealthcare, Project HOPE battle chronic disease with mobile telehealth unit.]

To achieve these goals, the report recommends: