How Telehealth Is Improving Care for Hard-to-Reach Communities
Bringing Healthcare to the Underserved
Everyone needs access to healthcare, yet certain patients and population centers face more obstacles when accessing these services than others. Elderly and chronically ill patients may have trouble getting to and from the doctor’s office or their local hospital.
Low-income patients may lack access to transportation or have trouble taking time off work in order to access these services. Rural areas and small towns also tend to face a shortage of healthcare providers.
Having access to healthcare means having timely access to affordable, comprehensive care services including primary care, dental care, behavioral health, emergency care, and more. Patients also need to have a way to pay for care. Improving access to care can improve the physical and mental health of the community, increase disease prevention, contribute to the local economy, and increase the overall quality of life for residents.
Telehealth and virtual care can increase access to healthcare among underserved populations by limiting the distance between providers and their patients. Virtual care also helps patients access providers outside of the immediate area, giving them the freedom to choose the provider that best meets their needs.
The Challenges of Accessing Care in Rural and Underserved Areas
Certain areas and patients may face a variety of different barriers when accessing healthcare, including financial, physical, mental, and geographic barriers. Here are some of the main reasons accessing care can be so difficult in rural and underserved areas:
- Lack of Insurance
Having health insurance is key to accessing healthcare services. Without insurance, patients will likely have to pay for services out of pocket. Those living in rural areas tend to go without insurance more than those living in urban areas. A 2018 U.S. Census Bureau report found that 9.1% of those living outside metropolitan areas do not have any type of health insurance, compared to 8.4% of those living in metropolitan areas.
There tend to be fewer insurance providers in rural areas than urban areas, leaving residents with few options. Those living in rural areas may forgo health insurance if they feel that accessing care may be too much of an inconvenience. Low-income patients and those living in rural areas may be more apt to sign up for health insurance if they have consistent, timely access to certain healthcare services.
- Poor Mobility and Lack of Transportation
Patients in rural areas are more likely to have to travel long distances than those living in urban areas when accessing care. These areas also tend to lack public forms of transportation, leaving patients with few alternatives.
Elderly and disabled patients and those suffering from mobility issues may also have trouble accessing a ride to and from the nearest healthcare facility. These individuals may need special assistance when getting in and out of a vehicle. Driving or riding in a car may also worsen their symptoms, further limiting their ability to visit a local care provider in person.
According to a recent study, lack of transportation can lead to higher rates of absenteeism and missed appointments, reduced medication adherence, increased stress levels, poor patient outcomes, and increased disruption in the delivery of care.
- Limited Access to Healthcare Facilities
Rural communities also tend to face a shortage of healthcare providers and facilities, most notably specialty care. According to a recent report from the Designated Health Professional Shortage Areas Statistics, 59% of Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) were located in rural areas. Lack of access to healthcare facilities can also lead to poor health literacy.
How Telehealth Can Help
Telehealth can help providers and rural communities improve access to healthcare and address the issues mentioned above. With virtual care, patients don’t always have to be in the same room as their provider.
Patients can use their smartphone, computer, tablet, or TV to connect with healthcare providers in real-time. Telehealth also increases the availability of different types of care providers, so patients, including those without insurance, can access facilities and services better suited to their needs.
Providers and health advocates can also use this technology to increase health literacy throughout rural and underserved communities. Providers can send reminders to their patients in real-time, make sure they are taking their medication, and help them navigate the healthcare system without meeting face-to-face.
As the community becomes more comfortable using these devices and digital healthcare services, more patients may decide to invest in health insurance. Patients will likely use their policy benefits more often if they can access vital healthcare services from the comfort of their own home. Cumulatively, these trends contribute to the overall health of the community, improving the quality of life of the local population.
The healthcare industry has long struggled to make sure everyone has equal access to healthcare. By limiting the distance between providers and their patients, telehealth is the solution the industry has been looking for. Visit InTouch Health for more information about the latest trends in digital healthcare.