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How to Implement Telehealth in Rural Areas: Identifying Opportunities and Addressing Barriers

Posted in Telemedicine

Last Updated | November 30, 2022

Executive Summary – How to Implement Telehealth in Rural Areas

Despite the promising nature of telehealth services, why is the telehealth implementation rate lower in rural areas? In this article, we walk you through the barriers to telehealth utilization and how addressing them can help provide access to better quality healthcare in rural communities.

Overview – How to Implement Telehealth in Rural Areas

Are you looking for how to implement telehealth in rural areas? You are at the right place to be. Let’s begin. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a dramatic surge in the use of telehealth.

It was during the peak of the pandemic when telehealth use, from less than 1 percent, rose to more than 80% of visits (in the places with the most COVID cases.)

One of the primary goals of telehealth has been to improve access to distant healthcare services, especially for the population residing in remote areas, by cutting down travel costs and wait times.

Yet, the use of telehealth remains greater in urban areas than in rural areas. This brings us to concerns about equitable access to telehealth services.

For example, several impediments prevent rural patients from engaging with clinicians via telehealth. The barriers include the lack of personal devices, digital literacy, inadequate broadband access, and more.

So, how can you, as healthcare providers, address these challenges in rural communities? And what measures can be taken to make telehealth approachable to rural patients?

In this article, we dig into how the healthcare sector can implement telehealth in rural areas by addressing barriers and identifying opportunities.

1. Defining Telehealth and its Significance for Healthcare Services in Rural Area

Before implementing telehealth, it is essential that you, as a rural practice or healthcare organization, understand what telehealth is.

According to HRSA, telehealth is “the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, health administration, and public health.”

Though telehealth has stayed around for a long, the importance of telehealth became more evident than ever during the pandemic.

Governments and organizations have been providing funds to promote telehealth as a secure way to access healthcare in rural communities reducing contact between people to control viral infections.

Not just that, telehealth has also emerged as an essential part of the healthcare system to provide access to communities with a shortage of healthcare professionals.

In rural parts of the United States, lack of professional care increases the chances of people dying prematurely due to five major diseases:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Unintentional injury
  • Stroke
  • Chronic lower respiratory disease

Instead of waiting days and weeks for healthcare providers to travel to patients or patients traveling to hospitals and waiting for appointments, telehealth provides timely medical services to locals.

Efficient healthcare services and faster and cheaper appointments can dramatically control population health and improve patient care while helping rural people access care at lower costs.

2. Describing Barriers to Implementing Telehealth in Rural Areas

 

Barriers to Implementing Telehealth in Rural Areas

Though technology in healthcare will witness a bright future, there will be significant challenges to continue to sway the smooth adoption of telehealth in rural areas.

Let’s look at some significant telehealth issues in rural areas faced by the healthcare industry around the world, and you might encounter the same:

  •     Acceptance by Rural Patients

The first and foremost step in telehealth implementation is the willingness of the population to learn and adopt telehealth services. However, a lack of education and awareness makes rural people reluctant to embrace technological transformation.

They still trust in-person visits over telemedicine and find it hard to adapt to new methods.

  • Medical Reimbursement

Reimbursement regulations still stay rigid and old-fashioned for populations across the world.

They need revamping and redesigning to fit the current and emerging technology trends and healthcare requirements. Some medical reimbursement models that need remodeling are:

  1. Geographic obstacles
  2. Service Restrictions
  3. Provider restrictions
  • Network and Connectivity

Issues with internet networks, connection, and speed are common in rural areas. The healthcare industry- in alliance with telecommunication companies- is working to strengthen connectivity and broadband in rural parts of the world to provide medical care to rural areas at an affordable cost.

In addition to the above limitations, physician licensure and deployment costs are other reasons rural areas still lack access to digital healthcare.

Telemedicine

3. Identifying Key Stakeholders to be Involved in the Process of Implementing Telehealth

After having a thorough look at potential barriers, you are ready to move on to the next steps.

Now, imagine a telehealth system developed and implemented without input from clinicians who are supposed to use it.

If the project does not make the cut, project teams will have to spend time and resources fixing the problems and regaining the trust of leaders across the organization.

If you miss identifying stakeholders and getting buy-in from them, this is how your IT project team ends up.

When planning telehealth implementation, identifying the areas that will have a considerable impact and well-representing them in the stakeholder group is imperative.

Here are a few groups to consider when identifying stakeholders to ensure you have all the input you need to plan your project:

●    Financial Stakeholders

Telehealth implementation will have a significant financial impact on the organization.

Therefore, the insight of board members, the chief executive officer, and the chief financial officer is vital at the planning stage. They can define what level of investment in telehealth can fit the budget and is acceptable to key stakeholders.

●    Medical Leaders

Every department leader- from the chief medical officer to the pharmacy director, wants to know how you will address their team’s needs during the migration process.

Taking the opinion of the key leaders into account from across the organization is critical.

By engaging with them, IT teams can identify and address concerns about the implementation of telehealth and get valuable feedback.

●    End Users: Providers and Patients

Better end-user experience with the technology helps you reach goals like efficient workflow and better care delivery.

For telehealth systems, healthcare providers, nurses, technicians, and patients are the users who will interact with technology on a day-to-day basis.

Keeping key stakeholders from the end-user level in the loop early on will make it easy to understand the impact telehealth will have on this group.

Each group will operate the technology at a different level and provide insight into various aspects of technology. Holding discussions with them on their qualms can help you get their input on the system and make tweaks.

4. Planning for How to Implement Telehealth in Rural Areas

Planning for How to Implement Telehealth in Rural Areas

A successful and sustainable telehealth implementation needs careful planning. Once you have identified potential barriers and the key stakeholders, you can create a business plan.

Carefully planning your workflow and the services you want to offer via telemedicine will help you launch telehealth on solid footing.

Some points you need to consider when planning implementation are:

  • In rural areas, many practices struggle financially, often because of high costs and low patient volumes. Factor these points into your business plan, so you know the financial impact telehealth will have on your practice.
  • Determine what kind of services you will offer via telehealth and consider their scope.
  • Consider your staffing needs.
  • What additional technology and devices do your staff and patient need to use telehealth?
  • How will you market your telehealth services to rural areas?
  • Plan post-evaluation of the program to make adjustments as needed
  • Create a feedback loop to measure the satisfaction of the patients you will serve
  • Set key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the performance of your program and how far you meet your goals

Taking into account these factors, you can create a comprehensive implementation plan and measure the performance of the programs along the way to spot challenges and opportunities.

5. Challenges and Opportunities of Telehealth Implementation in Rural Areas

Despite the yawning gap between developing and developed countries, almost every country has difficulties with transport and communication. Most countries also have a shortage of healthcare professionals and practices in rural and remote areas.

That is why patients from rural areas stay underprivileged to quality care.

Telehealth aims to break these barriers and make healthcare accessible and approachable to everyone to create equal opportunities across the population.

However, despite the many opportunities telehealth creates for patients to connect them with the quality care they deserve, rural areas continue to face challenges to reaping benefits from telehealth.

Let’s take a look at the opportunities and challenges telehealth may create for your practice:

Challenges

  • Telehealth depends on internet connectivity, but due to a lack of broadband connection, rural communities fail to benefit from telehealth
  • Patients lack trust in telehealth services. They also have concerns about the security of information transmitted via telehealth.
  • In comparison to in-person services, reimbursement for telehealth is more rigid, which becomes a key barrier to telehealth services.
  • According to Telehealth Policy Barriers, some malpractice or liability insurance services do not cover telehealth. Because of liability concerns, providers avoid participating in telehealth. This means you may face challenges convincing providers to switch to telehealth.
  • Connecting a patient and provider might take longer because of poor internet speed or server malfunctioning.
  • Ensuring the protection of clinical services via telemedicine requires robust policies and security protocols to be in place.

Opportunities

  • Telehealth helps providers better monitor patients, which reduces readmissions and improves patients’ quality of life.
  • Video appointments facilitated by telemedicine allow providers to check a patient’s home environment, which assists in the examination when family well-being and conditions intertwine with health.
  • Telemedicine consultations save patients’ and physicians’ time.
  • Aftercare at home is difficult for patients to manage. Telehealth platforms can help you check in on patients with follow-up appointments to prevent an eventual trip to the hospital.
  • In the event of a disaster, telemedicine will help you continue to provide consistent care.

FAQs:

List the advantages and disadvantages of telemedicine in rural areas.

Telemedicine is an innovative system that facilitates the provision of healthcare services over long distances, decreasing the barriers to quality care in rural areas.

However, just like any innovation, telehealth and telemedicine implementation have their own advantages and disadvantages. Some of the pros and cons of telehealth in rural areas are listed below:

Advantages

  • Patients feel much at ease and comfortable consulting a provider from their homes.
  • Communication between providers and patients is more convenient.
  • It provides timely reach to doctors in emergencies.
  • Telemedicine facilitates appointments through phones or tablets and reduces outpatient visits.

Disadvantages

  • The multi-faceted costs of telemedicine can be exorbitant.
  • The use of technology reduces interaction between providers and patients, thus increasing the chances of clinical errors.
  • Patients and providers face internet issues while connecting.
  • Rural telehealth may have issues sustaining services.

What are the barriers to using telehealth in rural areas or with vulnerable populations?

Lack of broadband and digital literacy resist the interrupted adoption of telehealth in rural communities.

In addition to the gap in broadband connection, telehealth barriers in rural areas are:

  • Lack of devices with cameras and fast internet access to seniors and rural communities
  • Inadequate digital skills to make an appointment, launch the visit, turn on the camera, adjust the microphone, etc.
  • Patients and providers need a data plan to keep the video visits under budget
  • Patients need a private, well-lit place to connect to a video visit.
  • Information exchange during telehealth poses security challenges.

What resources are needed to implement telehealth in rural areas?

Implementing and expanding telehealth in rural communities requires many resources, such as physical spacing, technology, staffing, and partnerships.

How to develop a telemedicine app?

Developing a medical app starts with listing down goals and hiring a telemedicine software development company to carry out an action plan to achieve those goals.

Based on goals and potential users, they can help you decide on the features of the app. The features vary depending on whether the app is for physicians or patients; or both types of users.

Then, the development team provides you with a detailed plan on how to build a telemedicine platform. The steps may look like this:

  • Choosing the platform that your users prefer (Android or iOS)
  • Deciding app design that meets user expectations
  • Selecting APIs to integrate with your app (for example, video calls, chatbots, etc.)
  • Technical development of the app
  • Testing and quality assurance
  • Deployment and maintenance of the app to continue to deliver a better user experience

How do IoT healthcare solutions support telehealth?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an example of technology with sensors and the ability to exchange data. This includes wearables, which patients can wear and allow doctors to monitor patient condition and get notified in an emergency.

Some wearables are fitness trackers, scales, stress meters, and more that allow doctors to get updates on a patient’s condition and adjust treatment plans accordingly.

How to implement telehealth in rural areas?

To implement a telehealth program in rural areas, practices and hospitals must create a business plan, considering barriers, stakeholders, budget, solutions to cope with technology downtime, and more.

Making sure everything is in place, and the potential challenges are coped with can help healthcare practices implement telehealth successfully.

What is the importance of telehealth in rural areas?

The use of telehealth is improving healthcare in rural areas by connecting rural patients to professional healthcare providers remotely. This eliminates transportation and reduces travel expenses for patients, who can receive quality care without traveling to distant places.

The overall cost of healthcare decreases for the rural population when they access it via telehealth.

What are telemedicine examples?

Telemedicine is the use of telecommunication technologies to deliver remote healthcare. Some common examples of telemedicine are:

  • Video consultations
  • Tele-treatment
  • Remote medical diagnosis and evaluations
  • Medication management

To Sum Up

Like education, better healthcare is a basic human right. Every state should make efforts to make it accessible and affordable for everyone. Governments and organizations can utilize telehealth solutions to deliver high-quality healthcare services to patients in rural areas.

While making efforts to implement telehealth in rural areas, governments should also take measures to remove the barricades that limit the reach of telehealth. Reducing barriers can boost the use of telehealth across the world and help quality care reach underserved communities.

If you are planning to implement telemedicine and want to provide expert consultations to remote areas, hire healthcare developers to help you build a customized telemedicine solution.

At Folio3, our skilled technical team is apt at designing cutting-edge telehealth solutions.

To discuss your project idea with us, be sure to check out our free consultation.

I hope that you got the best understanding of how to implement telehealth in rural areas.

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