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How Telehealth is Helping Underserved Populations in Healthcare

By Dori Milburn, BSN, RN

The healthcare ecosystem is experiencing many obstacles today. The COVID-19 pandemic, the nursing shortage, and the added challenge of health inequity pose large barriers to healthcare delivery.

To address these challenges, healthcare providers are leveraging telehealth to expand access and offer high quality, safe healthcare. Tools like virtual visits, audio-only consultations, and remote monitoring help make healthcare more accessible and convenient across diverse population groups. 

The nursing shortage, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has proven how essential telehealth is and can be. Across the country, providers, patients, and caregivers have adopted telehealth as a healthcare delivery mainstay. Today, clinicians and patients are comfortable with care being outside of the four walls of the hospital or clinic. With remote patient monitoring, patients have been able to experience convenient, quality care from the comfort and safety of home. 

Today, 85% of the population has access to a smart device, but not all people have access to safe, effective healthcare. For underserved populations, telehealth can be a vital resource, one that expands care access by eliminating barriers such as transportation needs, distance from specialty providers, time off work, and child care.

Social Determinants and Underserved Populations in Healthcare

Specific populations are more vulnerable to health inequity than others. Access to a smart device and access to healthcare do not go hand-in-hand–often, people have a smart device, but do not have access to healthcare. Factors like education, financial stability, and community and social contexts are fundamental to how patients experience healthcare—and often pose significant barriers.

Populations that are more likely to experience challenges in accessing healthcare include homeless people, low-income people, medicaid eligible people, migrant workers, Native Americans, and the 15% of individuals who do not have access to a smart device. Poverty and lack of access to transportation are common barriers to healthcare access. 

Transportation & Healthcare Accessibility

Access to transportation is an important social determinant of health. In rural communities, access to transportation is often the key predictor of whether a person receives the care they need. The availability of reliable transportation impacts a person's ability to access appropriate and well-coordinated healthcare, purchase nutritious food, and otherwise care for him or herself. Telehealth helps bridge this barrier. In rural areas where there are no specialists, patients can use telehealth to connect to the care they need virtually. Through the use of computers, kiosks, tablets, and smart devices, patients are able to get the care they need without having to travel.

telemedicine virtual visit with patient in rural location

A study by Vermont Veterans Hospital showed that telemedicine clinical appointments resulted in average travel and cost savings of 145 miles and 142 minutes per visit. With telehealth, patients are able to access the care they need.

How Telehealth & RPM Can Help Underserved Populations in Healthcare

Patients engaging in telehealth experience high-quality care regardless of geographic location.  This results in time and cost savings and improved disease management. Research has shown that patients with the skill of self-management are less likely to be hospitalized or readmitted.

The healthcare ecosystem is experiencing many challenges today. The COVID-19 pandemic, the nursing shortage, and the added barrier of health inequity make it difficult to deliver quality care. To address these challenges, healthcare providers should leverage telehealth and remote patient monitoring.

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Tags: COVID-19, Industry trends, Social determinants of health, Access to care

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