Telemedicine and Telehealth in Rural Areas
Global telemedicine has grown exponentially in recent years. And the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented boom in the industry.
Telemedicine was worth $42 billion globally in 2019. It exploded to $80 billion in 2020, according to Fortune Business Insights. By 2027, the industry is expected to be worth $397 billion.
Conversely, Telehealth was worth $83.5 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at an annual growth rate of 24%.
Why are telemedicine and telehealth in rural areas experiencing such financial growth?
Telemedicine and Telehealth: What are They?
Telemedicine and telehealth are sometimes used interchangeably, but they mean different things.
Telehealth is a broad term that refers to facilitating and managing health-related services through telecommunications and digital communication channels. It includes medical care, education, health information services, and self-care.
Specific examples of telehealth are remote monitoring of vital signs, online education on blockchain in healthcare, and virtual visits to a healthcare provider. Doctors e-prescribing medications and treatments also fall under telehealth.
Telemedicine is a subset of telehealth. It is the use of technology to provide remote medical services for patients. Remote monitoring of vital signs also falls under this telemedicine, along with remote medical diagnosis, evaluations, and consultations.
Both are welcome—and essential—developments in the healthcare industry.
Telemedicine During the Pandemic
The pandemic is the perfect demonstration of why telemedicine is important.
The world had to shut down when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020. This was a crucial moment for the healthcare industry, which had to continue functioning despite these limitations.
With most of the population forced to stay home, those with medical issues who didn’t need immediate attention had to turn to telemedicine. Millions of patients were diagnosed and monitored via digital communication devices.
However, not everything can be done online. Some cases require medical procedures and other health services done physically in a healthcare facility.
The Rise of NEMT?
In cases where in-person services were needed, patients got the help they needed through non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) services.
It was not advisable for sick people to ride public transportation because they were vulnerable to COVID. NEMT was a perfectly safe option. It was already a popular service among persons with disabilities and senior citizens.
The NEMT industry was worth $8.6 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $15.6 billion by 2028. Even though there were many NEMT companies that had to close their business, there were some opportunities for others, who started taking patients for COVID shots, later took the business from those, who didn’t manage to survive the pandemic year of 2020.
The market of NEMT equipment and technology will also continue to grow since the level of service is going to be increased.
Telehealth Service Experienced Growth
As telemedicine and NEMT experience outstanding growth during the past several years, so does telehealth.
At the peak of the pandemic, there was no choice but to continue medical training and other non-clinical services online. But since then, it became clear that remote setups were more convenient.
However, there are some things that online learning cannot completely convey. So while telehealth will continue to grow, the trajectory may not be as steep.
Advantages of Telemedicine in Rural Healthcare Delivery
As the pandemic is winding down, telemedicine’s importance in rural areas is highlighted.
It’s important to note that in the United States, access barriers in rural areas have led to concerning rates from the county’s leading causes of death compared to those in urban areas:
- Chronic lower respiratory disease
- Heart disease
- Unintentional injury
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that telemedicine in rural areas can solve this pressing problem.
The following are the reasons why:
The Distance Seems Nonexistent
Health-related death rates are higher in rural areas because of many factors. But one primary reason is the area’s distance to medical facilities. Some people live in towns where the nearest clinic is an hour or two away. Many people cannot be bothered to get regular checkups because of the distance, which would exacerbate any existing conditions. Worse, a patient may not have known there was a disease in the first place because they haven’t gone in for a checkup in years.
According to experts, healthy people in their 20s must have a routine medical checkup every three years. Every two years is the standard for healthy people between 30 and 49 years old. After one turns 50, the frequency should be at least once a year.
With telehealth in rural areas, some regular checkups are possible without driving or commuting for extended periods. Underserved communities can access consultations and diagnoses. More people can be served with telemedicine.
Healthcare Provider Shortage Isn’t Much of a Hurdle
If rural communities don’t have healthcare access, it may also be due to a shortage of healthcare workers. Most of them are stationed in big cities because there is a higher demand and compensation for jobs in urban centers.
But with telemedicine, fewer healthcare staff can be in the rural area to serve the community.
Plus, in terms of preventive care, people can attend any educational activity or training remotely.
No More Costly Commutes
If it’s a simple appointment related to some basic checkup, patients and their families no longer need to drive far for healthcare, so they don’t have to spend money on gas or transportation fees.
And for those who do need transportation for in-person medical procedures, they could use regular or premium NEMT service.
Overcoming Barriers to Telehealth and Telemedicine Implementation in Rural Areas
Still, there are some pressing challenges in rural telehealth and telemedicine. Here are some examples:
How to Convince People to Participate
Most people don’t seek medical attention until it’s too late. Moreover, convincing rural residents to share their health-related experiences over the computer can be challenging.
Lack of Fast Internet Service
People need a fast internet connection to enjoy the benefit of telehealth in rural areas. Millions of people in the U.S. still don’t have internet. The Federal Communications Commission estimates around 14.5 million, while the White House states it is approximately 30 million.
The BroadbandNow organization’s count is even higher at 42 million. Most of the people who don’t have an internet connection live in “rural, remote, low-income, and tribal lands.”
As medical technology advances with expected new healthcare technology trends, the government must ensure rural areas have the infrastructure needed to improve residents’ lives.
Lack of Technical Knowledge
There is a digital gap between rural and urban areas—rural residents don’t have easy access to broadband internet and advanced gadgets that most urban dwellers do.
When rural patients don’t know how to access or use telemedicine services, they cannot get e-consultations or e-prescriptions.
Some Healthcare Services Cannot Be Done Online
Telemedicine cannot replace face-to-face consultations. Doctors cannot physically examine patients or listen to their heart rates online. Although there are digital devices that can take certain measurements while the doctor observes from a screen, it’s just not the same.
There are limitations to what healthcare professionals can observe through a screen, which means a lack of context on the patient’s current condition and overall health.
Online activities always lead to concerns about data safety and privacy. Hackers and malicious third parties use advanced technology to access sensitive data—health information is especially valuable for them.
Patients have the right to be concerned. And it begs the question, who ensures data security in telehealth and telemedicine?
Case Studies: Telehealth and Telemedicine Success Stories in Rural Communities
The challenges related to rural telehealth didn’t stop it from spreading in popularity around the country.
The following case studies prove how effective telemedicine in rural areas improves people’s health and well-being.
Telestroke Services in Rural Areas
According to the CDC, every 40 seconds, an individual in the country suffers from a stroke. Every three minutes and 14 seconds, someone dies from a stroke.
With a clear disparity in healthcare between rural and urban regions, a study focused on providing telestroke service to rural areas. Telestroke provides two-way video communication between a specialist in stroke centers and a physician in a low-resourced medical facility in rural areas and their patient. There was a clear disparity between stroke care in rural and urban areas, with the former at a disadvantage.
The American Heart Association stated that telestroke effectively provided access to critical stroke care in underserved areas. Its use has increased over the years, especially in rural and super-rural regions. Experts also hope the technology can improve the country’s overall stroke mortality rate.
Telehealth in the World’s Poorest Regions
Some of the poorest nations in the world found success in serving a large number of people through telehealth. Telemedicine allowed local doctors from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Nigeria to communicate with specialists in Western countries to help treat hundreds of locals experiencing various illnesses.
Expanding Services Through Telehealth Training
At White Earth Health Center (WEHC) in rural northern Minnesota, one of the challenges of telemedicine or remote diagnosis and e-prescription is the lack of training among medical staff. Healthcare providers started training staff online (telehealth) so they could provide these services.
Face-to-Face Vs. Telemedicine in Maternal Care
Face-to-face visits are still preferred in maternal care. Although telemedicine provides baseline data, antenatal care (ANC) is important among pregnant women. At least four ANC visits are critical, and telemedicine doesn’t provide the same fulfillment that pregnant women get during face-to-face visits.
Facial expressions and minute reactions during in-person procedures provide critical context clues for maternal care providers. The lack of this information significantly impacts overall care.
Future Directions: Opportunities and Challenges for Telehealth and Telemedicine in Rural Healthcare
Telehealth and telemedicine are here to stay, and rural patients and healthcare workers will benefit greatly from it. They will not replace face-to-face consultations but enhance them as there is a gap between services offered and received in rural and urban areas.
Healthcare facilities must upgrade their technology game to extend services to rural and super-rural communities. First, they deserve to get the healthcare services they need. Second, it’s a massive business opportunity. The right technology is crucial to ensure success.
ISI Technology provides businesses with the best softwares in the healthcare industry, from medical billing to NEMT dispatch software. Don’t hesitate to talk to us if you want your business to utilize top-notch technology.