stethoscope_laptopRural telehealth initiatives have the potential to generate substantial quantifiable and nonquantifiable benefits and could help bridge an existing gap between the quality of healthcare in rural and metro areas, according to a new report from NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association. Quantifiable rural telehealth benefits include potentially generating local revenues for lab work and pharmacies as well as savings in travel costs, lost wages and hospital costs, the report states.

Rural Telehealth Benefits

NTCA defines rural telehealth to as “the remote delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology.” Quantifiable annual benefits per medical facility include:

  • Travel savings of $5,718
  • Lost wages of $3,431
  • Hospital cost savings of $20,841
  • Increased local lab work revenues between $9,204 and $39,882
  • Increased local pharmacy revenues between $2,319 and $6,239

Benefits that could not be quantified include improved outcomes, access to specialists, timeliness, comfort, and some provider benefits and transportation and hospital cost savings.

“A number of factors tend to work against rural Americans in terms of their overall health,” notes NTCA in the new report titled “Anticipating Economic Returns of Rural Telehealth.” The author notes, for example, that rural Americans tend to be older than those living in metro areas. He cites U.S. Census Bureau data showing a median adult age of 51 in rural areas versus 45 in nonrural areas. He also notes that average annual incomes are lower in rural America, which means that rural households are less likely to have health insurance while also having fewer funds available for healthcare.

Meanwhile, the rate of hospital closures in rural America is accelerating, according to data from the National Rural Health Association cited in the NTCA report. “Currently more than 670 . . . rural facilities, representing more than one-third of all rural hospitals in the United States, are considered ‘vulnerable’ and in danger of closing,” the NTCA report states.

Telehealth initiatives could help address some of these rural healthcare challenges but also face their own challenges, which must be addressed in order for telehealth to see widespread adoption. According to NTCA, these challenges include reimbursement concerns, implementation costs, patient privacy issues and state licensing regulations. The report also argues that fiber-based broadband is critical to supporting telehealth.

“[I]f the myriad challenges to rural health . . . are to be addressed in any substantial manner, then telemedicine solutions, built upon a foundation of reliable, future-proof, fiber-based broadband infrastructure, will be a significant part of the solution,” the report states. “Further . . . expansion of that infrastructure is a critical need for our nation.”

The NTCA report is well researched and contains a wide range of data points illustrating potential rural telehealth benefits. Another good source for such information is a recent blog post from Medsphere Systems Corporation, a provider of electronic health record technology.

In addition, Telecompetitor frequently covers rural telehealth and our archives include a considerable amount of information on this topic.

Image courtesy of flickr user jfcherry.

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