When dealing with the challenges of bringing quality medical care to rural communities, the obstacles are twofold: lack of available resources and the high cost to administer care in rural environments. Combined with cuts to Medicare funding, the obstacles rural patients face begin to mount to unmanageable levels, and often force long-term care (LTC) facilities and Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNFs) to send patients to emergency rooms for treatment if a specialist isn’t accessible in the immediate area within the required timeframe.
Fortunately, new technology innovations like telehealth have the capability of bringing the specialized care rural patients need right to their bedside or local facility. The research community is taking notice, with new studies proving the potential impact a telehealth solution can have on rural patients.
A recent study led by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Durham VA Medical Center and Duke University showed that Medicare beneficiaries living in isolated rural settings had a lower rate of follow-up care than those in urban settings. It also drew the following conclusions: “This study provides evidence of lower quality post-discharge care for Medicare beneficiaries in rural settings. As readmission penalties expand, hospitals serving rural beneficiaries may be disproportionately affected. This suggests a need for policies that increase follow-up care in rural settings.”
The research also revealed that rural patients suffer for not having access to continuing care following discharge, a factor that disproportionately affects rural residents who are forced to rely on an ED for care and are then released without a plan in place for follow-up treatment. The report’s authors note, “…delays in receiving follow-up care may explain the risk of greater risk of ED use during a post-discharge period. Studies identify few differences in overall hospitalizations and outpatient visits among rural and urban settings; however, our findings suggest that rural beneficiaries, compared with urban beneficiaries, are more frequently using the ED, and are less frequently seen in medical follow-up visits.”
This much is clear: between the increased potential of readmissions for hospitals and the lack of an alternative solution for patients, finding new ways to improve access to care in rural communities is more important ever. Recent stories from states like Nevada, which is using telehealth to connect to rural patients and cut down on wait times, show how effective telehealth can be. And in Arizona, which is experiencing a shortage of up to 750 doctors, telehealth is seen as a way to close the gap.
While the success of telehealth when deployed in rural areas may be gaining traction, the support of government, both state and federal, in making such services accessible is essential. Fortunately, new legislation may be able to alleviate the healthcare and Medicare costs that have for so long caused issues regarding access to care in rural areas. SNFs may see an increase in funding thanks to a proposed bill from Senator Bill Thune of South Dakota, according to an August 2 press release. This bill – the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015 – will allow SNFs to provide quality and innovative care in rural areas.
Delivering quality, affordable health care to rural communities continues to be a struggle, but new legislation and encouraging research are two ways it will become a more mainstream solution for rural environs and the facilities that serve them.