How to Build an Effective Rural Virtual Care and Telehealth Strategy

Posted on October 10, 2018 I Written By

The following is a guest blog post by Lee Horner, CEO of Synzi.

Rural healthcare organizations are increasingly interested in implementing virtual care and telehealth solutions in order to better meet the needs of their facilities, staff, and patient population. In danger of closing their doors, rural hospitals are struggling to survive and thrive in a healthcare environment with razor-thin margins.

iVantage’s 2017 Rural Relevance Study reports that 41 percent of rural hospitals operate at a negative margin. Poor financial performance is impacting these hospitals’ ability to keep their doors open and serve rural communities. In fact, the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) reported that the number of rural hospital closures has risen to 87 in the last 8 years.

A rural hospital closure has significant impact to its community. These facilities provide fundamental healthcare services to nearly 57 million people across the country and are often an integral part of the local economy, providing jobs and a tax base for the community. John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH) stated that hospitals are a critical element of a town’s survival: “Hospitals, schools, churches. It’s the three-legged stool. If one of those falls down, you don’t have a town.”

Virtual care technology can be a viable delivery option for healthcare facilities and residents in rural communities. To best build an effective virtual care strategy, rural healthcare organizations should short-list solutions which solve for limited bandwidth in rural areas, patient preference for mobile devices and communications, an organization’s current infrastructure and workflow, and security concerns.

Addressing Bandwidth Issues: Rural healthcare organizations may initially think that limited Wi-Fi and broadband availability will restrict telehealth adoption by a facility, a medical practice and/or the patients themselves. However, rural healthcare organizations can identify and implement solutions which work across any level of connectivity (whether cellular or Wi-Fi) to ensure that the providers and the patients can use the solution without issues. Various entities are actively pushing for continued investment in our nation’s broadband infrastructure and rural communities are a priority for future build-out.

Reflecting Patient Preferences: Patients are already using many devices – including smartphones, tablets, and/or computers – which also provide them with more convenient access to healthcare without requiring significant travel time and costs. Moving forward, rural healthcare organizations should prioritize solutions which are device-agnostic and should also ensure their patient communications work across any type of modality. Providers and patients already own many of these devices; a flexible virtual care platform will help organizations and individuals reap more benefits out of the investments they have already made in technology.

Optimizing Current Workflows: Healthcare organizations have ongoing clinical workflows, and may be wary of technology’s role in automating these processes. However, rural healthcare organizations’ existing workflows can be optimized by using a virtual care platform which ensures that the virtual care protocols are consistent with in-person protocols in terms of engaging at-home patients and/or reaching offsite specialists for a needed consult. The ideal solution should be intuitive and easy to use; providers will then be able to quickly incorporate virtual care into their practices.

Addressing Security Concerns: When exploring new technology, most healthcare organizations will initially question if a net-new solution meets safety and privacy standards. Rural healthcare organizations should prioritize solutions which are HIPAA-compliant and HITRUST-certified to ensure security, privacy and compliance. Although rural health providers will immediately understand the need to adopt a virtual care platform, IT departments and champions will also need to realize that the adoption of this new technology will benefit providers, patients, and ultimately, the sustainability of the healthcare organization. Virtual care technology is essential to rural healthcare as it helps close the time and distance gap in terms of providing patients with the care they need, when they need it – regardless of where the patients or the providers are located.

The rural population has noted gaps in both access and quality. An estimated one in five Americans live and work in rural areas across the nation, yet, there are 2,157 Health Professional Shortage Areas in rural areas compared to 910 in urban areas. Moreover, the Rural Health Information Hub reports that 19.5 percent of rural adults describe their health status as fair/poor vs. 15.6 percent of their urban counterparts. Virtual care technology can help address the gap in care by providing access to additional physicians and needed specialists at the click of a button. By leveraging external and/or associated hospitals and physician groups, rural hospitals strengthen their care within the vast populations and geographies they support.