When asked to envision who might benefit most from telemedicine, the average person might point to a rural patient in need of specialty health care–someone who, without the aid of new technologies, would have to spend hours (and hard-earned money) traveling to visit a specialist in a large, urban hospital. As first reported by Fierce Healthcare, a new study released this week from NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association, echoes what many advocates have long known, pointing to some of the positive impacts of telemedicine for rural patients, hospitals, and entire communities. It “holds potential to improve the quality, cost, and availability of health care in rural areas,” the report’s authors, who studied 24 rural hospitals in four states, assert.
Noting that significant disparities, often stemming from lower incomes and more limited access to care (exacerbated by numerous rural hospital closures in recent years), exist between rural and urban communities when it comes to health outcomes, the study’s authors outline both quantifiable and non-quantifiable benefits that can be derived from telemedicine. Tangible economic benefits include reduced travel time and costs, along with fewer lost wages, for patients. For hospitals, telemedicine could lead to an average of $81,000 in annual savings, including from contracting with specialists at large urban hospitals. Notably, the deployment of telemedicine can even benefit entire communities; local labs and pharmacies, for example, would see increased revenues from patients remaining in their home communities.
Challenges, of course, remain when it comes to increasing telemedicine utilization in rural areas. “Rural telemedicine’s ultimate role in addressing the significant health problems inherent to rural areas will depend in large part on the availability of an underlying future-proof, fiber-based broadband infrastructure,” the authors note. Further, reimbursement remains inconsistent, and facilities have upfront costs to consider. But overall, the study strikes an optimistic note.
The study’s release comes as some telemedicine advocates are expressing optimism about new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai and his seeming commitment to increasing access to broadband service in rural communities. As CTeL and others noted last week, Pai, who recently visited with telemedicine providers at the Cleveland Clinic, lists expansion of broadband coverage as one of his top priorities for his tenure as chairman. Further, as President Trump continues to promise to prioritize infrastructure spending, Pai told NTCA conference attendees (per Politico) that broadband should be a key part of any infrastructure-related legislation.