Virtual care provides critical access to rural communities

People in rural communities are experiencing unique challenges to accessing healthcare. But through telemedicine and associated innovative solutions, more people are able to access the care and providers they need when they need it, while remaining in their local community.

In a panel at Forum 2022, three leaders from varying health systems discussed how they have implemented virtual care solutions in communities to provide critical access points of care. The session, titled “Leveling the playing field: Access to care for rural and underserved communities,” featured perspectives from different parts of the U.S. and highlighted the unique challenges communities face.

Customizing virtual care solutions to meet individual community needs

Due to these unique challenges, each provider has different needs for telemedicine and strategies for implementation and utilization. But despite these different challenges, the panelists focused on their experiences in how virtual care has helped their communities receive high-quality care in settings more convenient for them.

Shane Flemming, MSN, RN, cofounder and chief development officer of Teledigm Health and Bryan Telemedicine, noted that at his organization and with their hospital partners, “we have a common goal of keeping patients in rural facilities and to help rural healthcare be sustainable going forward.”

Sustainability in rural healthcare has been found by the panelists through the implementation of various virtual care solutions. David Fletcher, Associate Vice President of Telehealth at Geisinger, discussed the complexities of delivering care among the community and the importance of keeping things simple and intuitive, not only for patients but also for providers and other care teams. But through the adoption of virtual care services at the system level, David says, “patients have taken to telehealth across demographics.”

For some communities, solutions come in a variety of forms, such as resources for managing patient volume and streamlining electronic medical records across multiple providers. For Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC), Becky Harless, Associate Administrator of Telemedicine, discussed the impact virtual care hubs have had in rural communities that are more removed from the hospital. Through these hubs, patients are able to reach all of the services at CAMC in their local community without having to worry about potential barriers that may impact their ability to travel to the hospital. Nurse navigators and other onsite staff work with clinicians at other locations to facilitate telemedicine appointments for patients. Through telemedicine services, CAMC has been able to “help the rural community through expanded access.”

The influence of Covid-19 on access to care for rural communities

While the pandemic contributed to the widespread adoption of virtual care and rise in usage, it also contributed to some “aha” moments. Fletcher, Flemming and Harless shared stories of how telemedicine has contributed to ease of access to care for patients. Through telemedicine, patients were able to see pulmonologists, pediatric emergency department doctors and other critical care clinicians, which allowed for patients to continue to be seen in their local hospital. Flemming noted, “we’re able to disperse the clinical expertise to anywhere the technology is,” which can lead to better clinical outcomes for patients.

The value that virtual care has added to the healthcare system is just beginning to be realized. This is even more true for rural communities. The panelists all emphasized the importance of being able to keep care in rural communities for both patients and providers–which virtual care has made increasingly more available. An important factor for patients is keeping things close to home, Harless says, “for patients, everything is taken care of in their community and provides that access point for the future.”

By increasing access to virtual care visits, patients are able to engage with their care at critical points and unnecessary care or travel is avoided. At Geisinger, Fletcher shared that through their on-demand, patient-initiated visits, they are reaching patients through organic ways, which has been able to reach 100 new patients a month.

For Bryan Telemedicine, Flemming shares that “we want to be a partner that can help them on this journey as they provide telemedicine programs that can add value.”

Access to virtual care has many value-adds, not only for patients but also for the facilities in these communities and their providers and staff. But these organizations are also looking to what comes next for telemedicine in rural communities. As a system, it is important to continue collaborating to ensure virtual care and access to care options grow for underserved and rural communities. Not only through sharing knowledge and resources but also through continued collaboration between telemedicine providers and rural facilities and how current local technologies can be integrated. Collaboration is key to increasing access to healthcare for all across the U.S. through telemedicine services.

To learn more about this presentation or to view additional insights from Forum 2022, visit the Forum webpage.