TeleHealth: Connecting Rural America to Much Needed Care

By 2025, the United States will face a shortage of 61,700 to 94,700 physicians, according to an updated study from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).1 Most affected by this looming shortage will likely be Americans in rural areas where there are 2,157 designated Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) compared to 910 in urban areas.2

Expanding the physician workforce through training and education can certainly help reduce the provider shortage in rural America, but that solution is farther off on the horizon. To address the more immediate need, the growing telehealth market is presenting opportunities to connect providers with underserved patients by using a providers’ telehealth technology and patients’ personal devices.

In fact, the U.S. telehealth market is expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2022.3 Certainly, healthcare organizations trying to increase physician capacity will contribute to that growth, but likely so will healthcare consumers seeking convenience and lower out-of- pocket costs. Perhaps most importantly, provider payment improvements could be a major growth driver. Currently, 48 states reimburse for telehealth for Medicaid patients, while 29 states have telemedicine reimbursement parity laws for private insurance.4 For these reasons and others, the momentum seems to have already started moving in telehealth’s favor.

“Physicians are beginning to understand that not every patient encounter requires an on-site office visit and that telehealth allows them to deliver more care while offering convenience to patients,” says Tom Toperczer, director of product management for Brother’s OmniJoin division. “Certain types of clinical encounters, such as non-emergency consultations and follow-ups, are well-suited for telehealth. These virtual visits, which can offer the same level of comfort and personal connection as an office visit through high-definition video and audio, can be ideal for providers to effectively monitor populations of patients at a lower cost and avoid readmissions by identifying potential complications before an ER visit is necessary.”

Overcoming geographic boundaries

For example, Toperczer highlights The Big Sky Aphasia Program, a clinic based at the University of Montana, which is leveraging OmniJoin to confront a unique specialty-provider access challenge that its rural patient population faces.

The program delivers speech and language therapy to individuals with aphasia and associated deficits resulting from stroke and traumatic brain injury. The clinic has many clients located in rural regions of the state who lack access to high-quality speech therapy services, who do not have reliable transportation or who have significant medical issues that make travel difficult.

“To overcome these barriers, the clinic uses video web conferencing to connect patients with their therapists and provide speech therapy sessions in a personalized, remote integration,” Toperczer explains. “The secure, cloud-based technology they’re using now offers a highly effective and affordable method to deliver rehabilitation services that was not previously available to the program due to cost or technology limitations.”

The projected shortfall of medical specialists, including rehabilitation providers similar to those in the Big Sky Aphasia Program, is expected to reach between 22,200 and 32,600 providers by 2025, according the AAMC.5 Many of these specialties could offer numerous types of care delivery through telehealth.

Addressing remote access gaps in behavioral healthcare

Behavioral healthcare is another a good fit for telehealth, Toperczer says, noting services are in high demand across the country, especially in rural areas. As of 2014, there were 4,000 HPSAs for mental health, which means those areas had less than one mental health professional for every 30,000 residents.6 One company helping fill these mental health gaps is Secure Telehealth, a Pittsburgh-based company that offers a cloud-based telehealth video conferencing solution targeted at the psychiatrists and other behavioral health specialists, predominately serving rural areas across the country. The company has grown exponentially in recent years, Toperczer says.

“The telehealth fit is very natural since much of clinical counseling revolves around the ability to facilitate personal interactions,” he says. “Listening, observing body language, patient affect and minute changes to facial expression can all be perceived with the right high-definition video and audio available in telehealth technology today.”

The potential to expand healthcare provider access through telehealth in the coming years appears to be encouraging. This could particularly benefit patients living in rural areas who, according to the National Rural Health Association, face greater obstacles beyond geography, such as lower incomes and cultural barriers.7 However, as high-speed internet connectivity continues to expand and become more affordable, more patients could soon be simply pointing-and- clicking or tapping on their mobile device to access the care and counseling they need.

About Tom Toperczer

Tom Toperczer is director of product management for Brother. With more than 20 years of experience in the video conferencing industry, Toperczer supports the company’s OmniJoin division that develops video web conferencing solutions with a growing healthcare segment.