By Jon Pangia, DO, MBA, FACEP, System Medical Director, Southeast Group, and Assistant Regional Medical Director, Telemedicine Group, TeamHealth
For decades, politicians, reporters and healthcare experts have discussed the growing number of barriers to accessing healthcare in rural communities. Factors that negatively impact access to care in rural communities are highly complex, like higher poverty rates, economic stagnation or decline, and a disproportionate number of elderly and uninsured residents. In addition, issues that are not systemic, but challenging nonetheless, compound barriers to care such as declining rural populations, physician shortages, higher rates of substance abuse, and lack of transportation. While the causes of rural health disparities are well documented and often discussed, solutions to these challenges have been harder to achieve.
Location. Location. Location.
Another major contributing factor affecting care access is simply location. Long distances to care sites are a significant barrier for rural residents who can live more than 200 miles from an appropriate care provider. Living in a rural area requires more effort to travel to care. From taking hours off from work to planning for follow-up care, healthcare becomes challenging to work into the schedules of rural residents. These obstacles cause many to delay or avoid care, leading to poorer outcomes and higher mortality rates.
A Growing Problem for Shrinking Populations
In the last 15 years, nearly 200 rural hospitals have closed in the United States widening the gaps in care for many Americans. More than 60 million Americans live in rural areas. Of these rural populations, over 10% live in counties with no access to Federally Qualified Health Centers, Rural Health Clinics, or an acute care hospital.
Technology Helps Bridge Gaps in Care
Telemedicine is the most promising solution for rural communities. While introducing technology to rural communities to increase access to care does not solve all the challenges facing rural residents, it provides additional paths to care that did not previously exist. While virtual care is not a solution for all ailments, telemedicine can help bridge the gap by delivering convenient preventative care, as well as real-time diagnosis and treatment for patients’ most common healthcare needs, such as:
- Cough, congestion, allergies
- Eye, ear, mouth problems
- Injuries and pain
- Stomach problems
- Skin and nail problems
- Sexual health
- Prescription refills and
- Smoking cessation
Evolving Care to Meet Patient Expectations
Telemedicine services are also evolving with technology. In addition to traditional online video conferences and phone calls, some states also allow asynchronous care modalities, which enable the patient and clinician to engage through call-and-response communication in a messaging style like texting. With asynchronous care, clinicians and patients can communicate at their convenience, without time constraints, and with the added benefit of sharing images if required.
Telemedicine is typically available for patients of all ages 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and open to patients with no appointments or long commutes. Patients can connect with their clinician when the time is right for them wherever they are and whenever they need care without the hassles and long waits of a traditional in-office visit. All the patient needs to start is an internet-connected device like a smartphone, tablet or computer. Additionally, care advocates can join a virtual visit to add an extra layer of comfort for patients by including a caregiver or loved one as part of the visit.
Another added benefit revolves around the cost of virtual care. Out-of-pocket costs for telemedicine services are typically lower than a traditional visit and usually on par with a standard office co-pay.
Virtual care continues to expand as consumer demand and technological advances entice elected officials to remove antiquated legal barriers. This expansion of services will significantly impact rural and underserved communities by providing more access to care for urgent care needs and expanding telemedicine into multiple medical specialties throughout the continuum of care, follow-up care, at-home monitoring, and behavioral health.
The New Normal
The lines in grocery stores and retail centers have shortened but purchasing has increased. Consumers did not stop shopping; they changed their buying behavior.
The shift doesn’t stop with retail. The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a rise in telemedicine usage. Before the pandemic, less than 1% of medical practice visits were virtual. That number peaked at 37% in May 2020 and has since remained at about 20%.
While patients and clinicians are mostly new to telemedicine, the early metrics prove that patients appreciate the convenience and autonomy of a virtual visit. Surveys report that patients are slightly more likely to give high ratings after a telemedicine visit when compared with in-person care.
A Better Telehealth Solution
While the TeamHealth standard of providing clinical excellence has remained unchanged for over 40 years, how we deliver care expands and adapts to meet patients’ and hospital leaders’ expectations. The demand for convenience is among those evolving expectations. TeamHealth VirtualCare helps provide quality care at the right time and right place.
Our unique core capabilities position TeamHealth to offer an industry-leading telehealth solution through
- A national network of clinicians
- Industry-leading clinical support infrastructure
- 24/7/365 availability
- A patient-centric technology platform which allows on-demand access without the need for an app
- A technology platform backed by the highest security (HITRUST) and HIPAA-compliant certification
- Care delivered by phone call, video call, or online interview/asynchronous visits
- Flexible branding with white label option and marketing support and
- Electronic Health Record integration
A brand patients trust … your own.
TeamHealth VirtualCare empowers hospital partners to utilize their existing branding to expand their community reach cost-effectively and engage with patients throughout their healthcare journey. Our custom white label option increases speed to market and helps address the unique needs of your community.