WASHINGTON — Telehealth, the process of accessing medical appointments through the internet, offers preventative and specialized patient care to many of the nation’s 62 million rural residents where hospitals are often lacking.
Such a system is especially important in 2017, because rising health care costs make personal access to health care increasingly difficult. Since 2005, 119 rural hospitals nationwide have closed because of the high cost of health care, according to data from the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program.
The State of Mississippi has a large rural population and battles high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes. The Center for Teleheath at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson was able to totally eliminate emergency room visits for diabetes in the first six months of its operation.
“We didn’t just monitor. We engaged and provided them with education,” said Michael Adcock, executive director of the Center for Telehealth. “Checking in and educating patients at home on a daily basis, in bite size pieces, is transformative. We are able to intervene immediately when patients check their blood pressure.”
This early intervention is not only crucial to the health of patients, it also saves the government big money. The center estimates that if 20 percent of all diabetes patients participated in the telehealth program, Mississippi could save up to $180 million per year. The Center demonstrated a savings of $300,000 alone in treating its first 100 patients.
The teleheath system, as it currently operates, is not perfect, however.
Medicare patients often do not qualify for teleheath services because of federal restrictions, said Nicole Clowers of the Government Accountability Office, testifying before the House Small Business Committee on Thursday. She said that some people are denied even telehealth services if they live in remote areas where there are no facilities.
“Medicare requires that the patient be physically present at a medical facility such as a hospital, rural health clinic, or skilled nursing facility—referred to as the originating site—during the telehealth service,” Clowers said.
Rural residents who have been shut out of quality health care are often hardest hit by regulatory red tape.
“Rural Americans are older, sicker and poorer than their urban counterparts, and need these services,” said David Schmitz, president of the National Rural Health Association.
The overall healthcare landscape is complicated by the fact that most medical students choose to intern in cities, where pay and benefits are better, continuing a vicious cycle of rural neglect that has consistently plagued the system, Schmitz said.
“In Mississippi, it takes everyone six months to get into a dermatologist appointment, even if you live right next door to the facility,” Adcock said. “If we expand telehealth services to continue to include more specialists, we can get this wait time down.”
Experts said telehealth’s preventative care successes and ability to save the government money in the long-term will continue to make it a vital part of rural heathcare infrastructure for the foreseeable future.