5 ways telemedicine can boost care in rural communities

By Michelle McNickle
02:02 PM

It’s no secret telemedicine has had a profound impact on the industry, both nationally and globally.  Organizations in big and small cities are seeing the benefits of employing such technology, and the biggest impression could arguably be on those living in rural communities. 

“Some of our most important citizens live in rural, small cities, the countryside, or remote areas, and these areas have smaller populations and less-direct access to vital healthcare resources,” said Shahid Shah, software analyst and author of the blog Healthcare IT Guy. “In the past 15 years or so, we’ve made some great strides in remotely accessible healthcare; these offerings, called telemedical tools, provide important clinical care at a distance.”

And the number of telemedical tools available is growing, increasing quality of care and decreasing delivery times. Shah gives us the five ways telemedicine is currently boosting care in rural communities.  

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1. Web meetings and online video tools bring expert caregivers anywhere. Programs like WebEx, GotoMeeting, Adobe Connect, and Skype are “wonderful tools to connect caregivers in populated communities to their rural patients,” said Shah. “A simple $30 to $50 per month account on the physician side, with almost no direct cost for the patient, is an excellent way to engage with patients.” Shah added these types of web meetings can happen securely, whether they take place at the patient’s home, or patients are brought into satellite offices with high-quality telepresence. “Then, instead of waiting for days or weeks for a health professional to travel to an area, or patients having to take time off traveling to big cities, care can be given almost immediately with less inconvenience,” said Shah. 

2. Telemedical devices for remote monitoring of in-home care improve clinical observations. “Although web meetings are great for basic primary care, they’re not perfect for elder care, long-term care, and other types of clinical requirements,” said Shah.  Instead, he suggests a new class of devices that put hospital-quality patient monitoring devices into patient homes. These devices then “beam” data to monitoring centers, which screen patients in different geographical areas. “Toss in a nurse or other caregiver that can visit once a week or once a month to calibrate the devices, and you can see how much more convenience patients have,” said Shah. “And their physicians, wherever they may be, have immediate access to their actual vitals and clinical status.”

[See also: Telemedicine pilot shows 'great encouragement' for geriatric depression.]

3. Mobile imaging and lab specimen collections with remote reading and web-based report distribution improve diagnostics. Shah said it’s difficult for many rural communities to have their own diagnosticians, but mobile imaging centers and lab specimen “kiosks” can take X-rays and perform collections, while also sending the data electronically to large populated centers where they can be read and analyzed. “The reports can be distributed via secure email or other web-based applications to doctors in rural areas, or physicians [who are] remotely available and connected through web meetings or similar tools,” he added. 

4. Behavioral health, mental health, and related care are made more accessible. “Veterans of our foreign wars are coming home with problems that can be easily diagnosed with proper access,” said Shah. “But many of the veterans live in rural communities.” Although primary care and specialty care is difficult to get in lesser-populated communities, Shah continued, behavioral and mental health is even harder to access. Telemedical assistance through online chat, Skype-like video conversations, and secure online messaging, though, can easily solve the problem. 

[See also: Telehealth helps cardiac patients improve conditions, study reveals.]

5. Online community-building tools allow populated city citizens to interact with their rural peers. “Patients helping other patients is a terrific approach to extending care,” said Shah. “Sometimes, what a patient needs isn’t necessarily a health professional, but a curated session with fellow patients going through the same problems.” Online, electronic community tools, like PatientsLikeMe.com, can connect geographic communities and allow for easier dialogue without increasing costs, said Shah. “And, they don’t require anything more than a mobile phone or computer.”



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