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Rural Health System’s Telehealth Opens the Door For Innovation

I serve on the board of a rural health system. Prior to the pandemic, the health system had existing plans to stand up telemedicine to reach remote and underserved patients—many living more than 75 miles away from the nearest hospital or clinic.

Initially, the health system’s plan was to roll out telehealth over the course of 12 months, with a budget of several hundred thousand dollars and resources allocated to implementing the telehealth system. Once in place, the health system would need to convince the doctors and staff—who were already reluctant to work telehealth into their already busy schedule.  The initial adoption rate was planned to be less than 10% of physicians and only 10-20% of their visits would be virtual.  The physicians and staff worried it would interfere with their work, and many felt very strongly they would lose the connection with their patients.

Once the pandemic hit, the rural health system implemented telehealth in three days with over 50 successful virtual visits the first day.  It proved that the health system could innovate quickly, by doing things differently with great results while not compromising quality. The health system has increased its visit capacity by 25% with an anticipated increase in revenue while eliminating a key access barrier to care by bringing specialty care close to home for rural families.

Rural health systems face unique challenges, serving remote communities with limited providers, and extremely tight budgets. The telehealth virtual visits’ success opened the door for additional innovation and digital initiatives to create a better patient experience.

Sometimes, the best view of one’s soul is on the edge, looking back. Providers were pushed off the cliff for virtual visits because they did not have a choice due to the pandemic. And the results are incredible.

With telehealth, the physicians experienced increased efficiency that allows them to see more patients, have longer visits, and maintain a strong connection. Virtual visits have also provided an additional value with a window into their patient’s social determinants of health.  Observations during virtual visits provide not only the ability to clinically assess the patient, but they can also assess their social situation.  Virtual visits Telehealth has become a preferred method of accessing care in rural communities.

With this shift and change, telehealth increased the volume of visits physicians could take on, aligned reimbursements better, and provided improved access to quality, convenient care for members.

This pandemic has forced everyone to adapt and innovate faster than we ever thought possible. With technology and focused resources, this health system can now reach more members and continue improving care across the communities they serve.