A task force established by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is meeting in May to discuss expanding virtual care, or telemedicine, options for rural residents of the state.
The task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, will discuss health care options and Medicaid coverage for virtual care.
Illinois has almost 1.5 million people living in rural areas, and people who live outside urban locales have more limited health care options.
Increasing Rural Options
Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, says rural hospitals face unique problems not seen in their urban counterparts and that telehealth services cover a wide range of needs for which rural residents otherwise cannot get help.
“The concern with rural hospital closures is that you lose the 24/7 emergency room service in these communities,” Morgan said. “Telehealth is an amazing tool to extend specialty care, behavioral health care, and clinical consultative services into small rural communities. 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.”
Virtual Care As Effective As Traditional Medical Care
Michael Adcock, executive director of the Center for Telehealth at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says his organization has conducted telehealth consultations across Mississippi through 35 different medical specialty programs at more than 200 sites.
“The outcomes from our Telemergency program, which has been active for 15 years, have proven that rural ERs that utilize Telemergency services have the exact same clinical outcomes as those who have physical clinicians present in Level 1 trauma centers,” Adcock said. “There are quite a few ways that telehealth benefits those in rural locations. Telemedicine can bring specialty care to rural communities where it is normally not available. Patients can have access to specialists and sub-specialists in their own communities through collaborations between the specialists and the local hospital or clinic.”
Quicker Answers For Patients
Adcock says telehealth can provide diagnosis information and chronic disease management quickly through services such as Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM).
“RPM utilizes cellular connected tablets and Bluetooth peripheral devices to deliver education to patients, assess their condition, and record biometric readings from the Bluetooth peripheral devices,” Adcock said. “This information is all transmitted securely to clinical staff, who help address any issues and reinforce positive behaviors.
“The program has been shown to be effective in treating diabetes, congestive heart failure, hypertension, asthma, COPD, and many others,” Adcock said.
Breaking Access Barriers
Morgan says state laws impede the benefits telehealth services could provide to rural communities.
“Restrictive state laws impacting licensure and limited reimbursement policies serve as serious barriers to expansion of telehealth,” Morgan said. “Unfortunately, in most rural areas, a lack of broadband access also creates a significant barrier to telehealth implementation.”
Adcock says states are beginning to remove the barriers to virtual care.
“There are laws that restrict telehealth, but these barriers are decreasing by the day,” Adcock said. “States are passing new regulations to allow for better utilization of telehealth. That said, we still have a long way to go.”
Increasing Quality, Decreasing Cost
The Center for Telehealth’s Mississippi Delta Diabetes Network, a public/private partnership testing the efficacy of RPM for diabetes management in the Mississippi Delta, estimates that telehealth services are projected to save the state $189 million per year in Medicaid spending. Morgan says the benefits will be savings in cost, but also in increases access and better quality.
“Telehealth has proven to be not only a tool to increase access to care but also a tool to reduce costs and improve quality,” Morgan said. “Deployed in small towns across the Midwest, clinicians in those towns are now able to avoid costly patient transfers to larger urban facilities. In addition, telehealth allows clinicians to diagnose proper care early and avoid later, costly care for undiagnosed problems.”