Access to telehealth services is expanding throughout the United States, and especially in rural communities, where lawmakers increasingly see technologies like virtual visits and remote patient management (RPM) as a means to extend care to those who live in areas too remote to effectively access high-quality care in person.
To this end, the FCC recently announced its Connected Care Initiative, which seeks to develop broadband access throughout these remote areas to better connect residents to primary and specialty care. The CMS is also expanding telehealth reimbursements, including a major change to its coding rules in January 2018 that allows for expanded reimbursements for a range of remote care services.
Besides spreading access, telehealth is also an effective tool for avoiding some costly healthcare scenarios. When “deployed in small towns across the Midwest, clinicians in those towns are now able to avoid costly patient transfers to larger urban facilities,” as National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan told the Heartland Institute’s Ashley Bateman.
“In addition, telehealth allows clinicians to diagnose proper care early and avoid later, costly care for undiagnosed problems,” Morgan adds.
Illinois Governor Signs New Law Expanding Rural Telehealth Access
Yet many states, after years of struggling with the federal government’s limitations, are taking matters into their own hands, passing laws to expand rural telehealth access within their borders. Last week, Governor Bruce Rauner signed a new law expanding telehealth access in Illinois “for rural, underserved and disadvantaged patients throughout the state,” writes Joe Deacon for Decatur's WSOY-AM.
Though the measure, which “allows health care providers on both ends of a telehealth interaction to be reimbursed for costs involved” — previously limited by state law, particularly for Medicaid patients — is geared toward mental health services, it’s also being seen as opening the door for general telehealth expansion.
“Telehealth is an amazing tool to extend specialty care, behavioral health care, and clinical consultative services into small rural communities,” Morgan told Bateman. “And they’re being used in a wide array of health services and settings, including cardiovascular care, behavioral health, radiology, and even oral health care."
“Children and families shouldn’t go without medical treatment or counseling – nor should they have to drive three hours for services they need simply because of where they live,” agreed state Senator Andy Manar (via the Illinois Business Journal). “We have other options today. Telemedicine is one of them.”
Rural Telehealth Models Emerge in New Hampshire, Mississippi
Last year, New Hampshire also took a major step to expand rural telehealth access with its TeleStroke initiative. Designed to more effectively link patients statewide with around-the-clock access to specialist care, the program makes use of innovative “stroke robots” equipped with cameras and a video screen to “enable specialists to see and communicate with patients” while directing an exam, explains New Hampshire Magazine‘s Karen A. Jamrog in a look at the state’s emerging telehealth options.
“For an individual organization to provide good care to a stroke patient, you really need to have access to neurosurgery 24/7, 365 days a year,” Dr. Michael McLeod of Concord Hospital told Jamrog, “and for a lot of hospital systems — especially in rural areas — there just aren’t that many neurosurgeons.”
“There is no question,” Jamrog adds, “that telehealth has the potential to improve people’s access to care, and by extension, people’s health — not just across New Hampshire or the United States, but worldwide as it opens virtual doors that separate medical expertise from underserved populations.”
As one of the states with the largest concentration of non-urban residents, Mississippi is even more of a rural telehealth pioneer. Launched in 2014, the Mississippi Diabetes Telehealth Network — an initiative led by the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) and founded upon the Care Innovations® Health Harmony RPM platform — has yielded remarkable results.
According to Bateman, recent estimates from the UMMC’s Center for Telehealth’s Executive Director Michael Adcock point to a projected savings of $189 million per year in Medicaid spending.
“There are quite a few ways that telehealth benefits those in rural locations,” Adcock continues, pointing out that remote care technology can:
- Expand specialty care into rural and remote communities where it normally isn’t available
- Grant rural patients greater access to specialists and sub-specialists through telehealth collaborations between their local hospitals
- Helping people in rural areas receive more timely diagnoses, at a stage where prevention options are more readily available (and less costly)
In light of these advantages, Adcock predicts that the federal “barriers” restricting telehealth “are decreasing by the day” — a statement that echoes that of Trump administration policymakers.
“States are passing new regulations to allow for better utilization of telehealth,” he adds. “That said, we still have a long way to go.”
Interested in learning more about how telehealth can help your facility or organization expand rural telehealth access? Contact us today to schedule your complimentary consultation with a Care Innovations telehealth expert.