TTA has an open invitation to industry leaders to contribute to our Perspectives non-promotional opinion area. Today’s Perspectives is from Brian Kenah, Azalea Health’s chief technology officer responsible for engineering, software development initiatives, M&A integrations, and related areas. Azalea Health is a leading US-based provider of cloud-based healthcare solutions and services, including a complete solution of electronic health records (EHR), practice management (PM), revenue cycle management (RCM) billing services, as well as a patient health records portal, and a mobile mHealth application. This article discusses how technology can bridge care gaps that continue to be present in rural areas and enable greater access for individuals.
The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the health needs facing many communities and nowhere was that more apparent than in rural communities.
Rural areas in the U.S. often have higher rates of mortality and morbidity from the leading causes of death compared to urban areas. A report by the CDC in 2017 found that people living in rural areas had a higher risk of death from heart disease, cancer, stroke, and respiratory disease combined than those living in urban areas. One factor contributing to these disparities is limited access to healthcare services – including behavioral and mental health.
Based on data from the American Psychological Association (APA), there is a shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas of the U.S. According to the APA, about 20% of Americans live in rural areas, but only about 10% of psychologists practice in these areas. Additionally, the APA reports that up to 80% of rural communities do not have a psychologist.
Rural communities may not have the same access to psychologists and other resources such as technology as urban areas, which can limit their ability to support mental and behavioral health. And, while many providers in rural communities cannot hire psychologists and other experts who specialize in mental and behavioral health, residents in these communities still need — and deserve — this type of care. There are efforts underway to address this issue and expand access, specifically with technology tools that can be used in rural communities to support mental and behavioral health issues. Some of these technology tools include the following:
- Access to Broadband: One challenge in rural areas is limited broadband internet access, which can make it difficult to access online mental health resources, telemedicine services, and other technology tools. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly one in four rural Americans lack access to broadband internet. Despite these challenges, there are initiatives to expand access to technology tools for mental and behavioral health in rural communities. For example, the FCC has established the Rural Health Care Program, which provides funding to help rural healthcare providers expand their telemedicine services and broadband access.
- Telehealth: Telehealth is a service that saw widespread adoption during the pandemic. Telemedicine allows patients in rural areas to access mental health services remotely via videoconferencing. This is especially important where there is a shortage of mental health providers. Investing in telehealth services provides healthcare organizations with an opportunity to revolutionize healthcare delivery. Investing in and expanding the use of telehealth provides an immediate way for providers in smaller communities to tap into larger health systems and their experts. It also strengthens the provider/patient relations by removing proximity as a potential barrier to connecting. Longer term, telehealth allows providers to offer new services and expand existing offerings they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Telehealth can also help reduce patient wait times and allow providers to serve more patients without necessarily needing to hire additional personnel.
- Remote Patient Monitoring/Care: The challenges faced by rural communities in accessing behavioral health services are well documented – long travel times to clinics, limited availability of mental health professionals, and stigma associated with seeking help. Remote patient monitoring (RPM) tools can address many of these barriers and improve the overall quality of care. The use of technology to remotely collect and transmit health data from patients to healthcare providers, such as information on mood, anxiety, sleep patterns, and medication adherence, can help providers identify potential issues before they become acute and intervene accordingly. This can all be done remotely without travel, particularly important in rural communities where access to transportation can be limited. Additionally, remote patient care can increase the frequency of patient-provider interactions, leading to more timely interventions and better outcomes. Remote patient care also has the potential to address the shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas, helping those that are providing services to make better use of their time and resources, ultimately improving access to patient care .
- Predictive Analytics: Coupling solutions like telehealth with predictive analytics can enable providers to focus on those with the biggest needs, moving from triage mode to true holistic healthcare management. Rural areas already struggle with a shortage of psychologists, doctors, and nurses, and that shortage won’t stop the flow of patients needing support for mental health issues. Predictive analytics can often help provide support for those individuals with existing and ongoing conditions such as PTSD, phobias, and anxiety disorders.
Overall, technology can help bridge the gap in mental and behavioral health services in rural communities and provide access to virtual care that might not be otherwise available.
Healthcare outcomes shouldn’t be based on a patient’s zip code, but for too long, that’s been the case. Patients in smaller communities deserve the same level of care as their counterparts living in larger communities, and technology enables providers to deliver on that promise.