stethoscope_laptopThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)  announced it is funding 81 Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) projects in 32 states in order to improve healthcare services and extend distance learning programs in rural areas. A total $23.4 million of funding will come in the form of grants to support 45 distance learning and 36 telemedicine projects.

Funded projects will connect rural communities with medical and educational experts elsewhere in order to enhance rural residents’ access to health care, substance misuse treatment and advanced educational opportunities, USDA explains in a news release.

“Using technology for educational opportunities and medical care can provide services that are often unavailable in rural areas,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program helps communities better meet the needs of their residents.

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Distance Learning and Telemedicine
¨For example, opioid and other substance misuse disproportionately affect rural areas, and telemedicine is proving to be an effective tool for treating patients when experts otherwise would be unavailable. Hospitals, schools and training centers across the country are successfully using telecommunications to deliver specialized care to area residents, and we are proud to bring these capabilities to 81 additional communities.”

Addressing opioid abuse will be the focus of some grant-winning projects. Vilsack on June 30 announced funding of five opiod-related DLT projects in rural Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia at a town hall meeting in Abingdon, Va. Vilsack is also leading an interagency initiative to address what’s considered an opioid crisis in rural America.

Providing mental health services is another example of the types of programs the USDA grants will fund. USDA on July 14 announced the Southern Hills Counseling Center in Jasper, Ind. had won a $73,000 grant to implement a telemedicine system that will expand the availability of mental health services in remote counties. Using the telemedicine system, mental health specialists located in urban areas will be able to connect with rural residents in real-time to provide treatment and care. The counseling center’s proposed telemedicine system will also connect rural hospitals in the isolated community in order to provide psychiatric diagnoses and support hospital emergency departments.

Turning to distance learning, the Cooperative Educational Service Agency No. 10 was awarded a $134,000 grant to extend distance learning opportunities to students at K-12 schools in rural areas of west-central Wisconsin. The extension of the distance learning system builds on a previously built, USDA-funded distance learning network that connects rural schools in Wisconsin with those in Alaska serving the Kenaltze Indian Tribe.

USDA Rural Development has helped bring high-speed Internet access to nearly 6 million rural residents and businesses and invested $31.3 billion in 963 electric projects that have financed more than 185,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines serving 4.6 million rural residents since 2009, USDA highlights. In addition, it has helped 1.1 million rural residents buy homes, funded nearly 7,000 community facilities – schools, public safety and health care facilities among them. It also has invested $11 billion to start or expand 103,000 rural businesses.

Image courtesy of flickr user jfcherry.

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