Now, More Than Ever, Rural Communities Need Virtual Care

The CDC reports that rural Americans are more likely to die of five leading causes than urban Americans are. That’s 57 million Americans who are at greater risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, stroke, and unintentional injury such as overdoses and motor vehicle accidents.

Rural Americans tend to be older and sicker than those who live in urban areas. They are less likely to have access to health care or even to have health insurance because of where they live. Rural Americans face higher poverty levels and are at higher risk of developing preventable chronic diseases because of their increased rates of high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking. Children from rural areas with behavioral, developmental, and mental disorders are more challenged than city kids who have the same disorders.

The need for healthcare in rural areas is great, yet rural hospitals and clinics are reducing services and closing. Rural hospitals are faced with unique challenges, such as the growing opioid epidemic, geographic isolation, workforce shortage, and changes to the payer and patient mix. An aging infrastructure also makes rural clinics more prone to cyber attacks. And even though there is so much need for healthcare in rural settings, low patient volume in hospitals has been a persistent, costly problem.

In a 2019 report on the state of rural healthcare, the American Hospital Association laid out several recommendations, with improved and expanded access to virtual care being a significant priority.

Virtual care, which is far more than video conferencing, is absolutely essential to improving the quality and access to healthcare for those 57 million Americans who do not live in urban areas. With recent changes to federal regulations to expand telehealth reimbursements, and with many states funding improvements to telecommunication and broadband infrastructure, there is hope that virtual care will play a significant role in improving rural health.

Virtual care bridges the gap in healthcare for rural populations, and can also help address many of the challenges facing rural hospitals and clinics today.

Virtual care improves access to specialty health care providers.

Rural hospitals, clinics, and community health centers typically don’t have the budget to attract specialists. Some may share specialists among their network, requiring the physician to travel from one location to the next each day. The number of patients the physician can care for is limited because of how much time they spend traveling.

Other clinics and community health centers don’t even have that kind of access. Their patients must travel for hours to receive the specialty care they need. Further deterring care, the patient’s insurance may not even cover the services provided by an out of network specialist.

Instead of sending patients far away, a primary care provider could use a platform like Bluestream Health to instantly connect with a specialist thousands of miles away for a consult. A child in need of speech therapy could receive the therapy he needs over a video call, and a medical interpreter for his parents could easily be added to the call.

Transforming to a Virtual Clinic.

Download the playbook to learn how another health clinic switched from Zoom and grew from 0 to 3,782 virtual visits a month. 

Virtual care connects rural providers to more patients.

Virtual care can also help rural clinics that are struggling to remain open due to lower patient numbers and increased costs. A mental health specialist in a rural setting may not have enough local patients to stay open. Instead of closing, which would also be detrimental to the community economically, the specialist could expand their service area and client base by offering virtual appointments.

Virtual care improves healthcare access for seniors and people with disabilities.

The rural population in America is aging. The younger generations continue to move to more urban areas. This leaves more seniors at home alone. When seniors experience a health incident, they may not have anyone aware that they need help. If they no longer drive, they may not have a reliable or affordable way to reach their appointments. Similarly, rural Americans with limited mobility or other disabilities don’t have the same level of access to transportation or paratransportation services as those living in urban centers.

Telemedicine can change this by bringing the physician to the patient virtually instead of requiring the patient to come to them. By incorporating video, telephone, and even remote monitoring devices, providers can achieve greater continuity of care for the most vulnerable populations. In fact, being virtually in their patients’ homes through video could even give providers greater insight into the unique challenges facing their patients.

Virtual care monitoring can be used to improve chronic disease risk factors and symptoms.

Many of the leading causes of death that rural Americans face are actually preventable, chronic diseases. Stopping smoking, limiting alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking medications as prescribed are all preventative measures that can reduce the risk or severity of these diseases. But lack of patient adherence to these care plans increases hospital readmissions, increases overall healthcare costs, and ultimately increases the patient’s risk of death.

Virtual care can play an important role in monitoring patients’ health so that their care can be more proactive as patients are more engaged in their own care. Patients can be reminded to exercise regularly, they can be reminded to take their prescriptions, they can check in with a behavioral health specialist for addiction counseling.

Patients who need regular monitoring of vital signs or symptoms can be helped by a comprehensive virtual care and remote patient monitoring solution. For example, their EMR could sync with data sent from a wearable device. When their data goes out of an expected range, their PCP could be notified and a call to the patient could be initiated right away. If needed, emergency personnel could be sent to the patient’s location. With the right kind of virtual care platform, all of these events could be automatically tracked, recorded, and reported within the EHR.

Remote patient monitoring could also help patients develop healthier habits by gamifying physical activity, by tracking their blood glucose levels, or by other tech-enabled biofeedback notifications.

Virtual Care is essential to improving rural healthcare

The challenges facing rural healthcare in America are multifaceted. They simply won’t be solved overnight. They will require a concerted effort by care providers being willing to try new technology, by hospitals willing to change how things have always been done, and by policy-makers removing dated regulations that keep healthcare providers from providing healthcare to those who need it most.

Virtual care offers clear solutions to one of the greatest problems that providers face — how to expand access and provide care for everyone, everywhere. And it gives patients hope that they can receive access to better care without, quite literally, selling the farm.

Bluestream Health is dedicated to being the virtual bridge between patients and providers. We are committed to offering the best, most elegant virtual care platform in the industry so that everyone has immediate access to the healthcare they need.

If you’d like to see what it takes to transform into a virtual clinic, get our playbook today.

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