Greg, a resident of a rural area in North Carolina, finds it hard to access healthcare especially for unscheduled care needs that may occur during after-hours when his primary care physician or local urgent care facility is closed. Because of this he often frequents the local emergency department- and while the ER is over 50 miles away, it still becomes the first choice to avoid missing out on work hours that comes with scheduling care the following day. The problem is multiplied when his wife or children are utilizing the family’s one automobile.
Residents of rural area communities are often short-handed when it comes to healthcare options that are easily accessible from their community. Smaller hospitals and clinics offer fewer options for diagnosis and treatment of certain conditions and the smaller number of available locations leave fewer alternatives for care in general. When care is needed during odd hours or on weekends, this problem is exacerbated. Many times, these limited options leave the emergency department as the last resort and it’s not unknown that rural emergency departments are over-used for non-emergent conditions. This increases wait-time and reduces staff availability for those experiencing true emergencies.
In addition to the overuse of emergency departments, already short-staffed EMS teams are often called to the scene for minor episodes that could have been resolved at home without the need of an in-person visit.
Rural areas are experiencing physician shortages which are contributing to the lack of easily accessible healthcare. There are a number of ways this is impacting rural residents:
1- When there is a non-emergency overnight medical need, urgent care facilities and primary care offices are closed. No options are available the next day if medical a condition occurs during the weekend. If there are, hours are extremely limited and wait times tend to be long.
2- Urgent care and emergency departments can be located more than 50 miles from where patients reside, this is especially harmful for unscheduled care needs. Limited transportation opportunities hinder residents receiving after-hours care from these locations if needed.
3- Fewer and fewer rural primary care physicians are accepting new Medicare patients or any Medicaid patients due to low reimbursement rates.
4- Long wait times in emergency departments and urgent care facilities take up more time that could be spent at work, further limiting available monetary resources available for healthcare.
5- Limited transportation often means people are utilizing EMS services when not necessary.
6- Emergency department visits are more expensive, no matter what the medical condition.
7- ER visits disrupt the continuum of care between patients and physicians.
8- Lack of physicians and ample locations is especially harmful to older populations as they begin to experience chronic diseases that require regular monitoring.
9- Lack of healthcare locations is increasing the chance that a rural resident forgoes care altogether when faced with hard-to-reach medical professionals.
According to the American Medical Association, as many as 70% of doctor visits can be handled remotely – including most of the doctor visits that send patients to the ER which is why telemedicine is continuing to be an added door for rural communities and will help bridge the gap in healthcare.
And while on the rise, many of these communities are still lacking the availability of these 24-hour services even though a number studies show that many groups and organizations would benefit from the services:
- A NTCA Rural Broadband Association’s report found that hospitals could save more than $81,000 in certain states and that the rural communities within these states could save an average of $41,000 by using telemedicine.
- In the same report, it was found that residents of those rural communities could save, on average, $24,000 in travel expenses and over $16,000 in lost wages.
- Hospitals who deploy telemedicine can expect to require less physician hiring, taking one well-known burden off their list.
The beauty of telemedicine is that it can be built to serve the needs of any hospital or community and thus can be structured to align with budgetary limitations as well. Click here to learn more about how telemedicine is helping hospitals and health systems.
June 12, 2017
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