The demand for telehealth is growing globally as it expands healthcare access to underserved populations. In rural areas, the need for remote care and treatment is even more pressing due to limited resources and access to medical facilities.  

Telehealth, specifically telemedicine, offers an effective solution for meeting this demand by providing technology-enabled care to patients who are unable to access traditional healthcare services. In this blog post, we explore how telemedicine can help healthcare providers improve patient outcomes for rural populations and review tips for implementing telehealth in rural areas.

Improving Care Access with Rural Telemedicine

Why Telemedicine is Increasingly Important for Rural Providers

Rural communities in the US are facing an ever-increasing healthcare crisis due to a shortage of healthcare providers and facilities. Recent hospital closures, resulting from low patient volumes and budget cuts, have worsened the situation. 

This has led to a widening gap in healthcare access between urban and rural areas. Many rural healthcare providers are turning to telemedicine as an alternative for providing care to bridge this gap.  

The US Federal Government also recognizes the opportunity for telemedicine to support rural communities and has introduced legislation to make some COVID-era policies permanent with the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act. 

Benefits of Telemedicine in Rural Areas 

Through telemedicine, rural healthcare providers can provide remote care options that are both convenient and cost-effective, ultimately promoting health equity for underserved patients. Here are some of the key benefits of rural telemedicine: 

  1. Improving access to specialists: Telemedicine allows rural patients with chronic conditions like diabetes and COPD to easily access specialty healthcare services without having to travel long distances, which can be costly and time-consuming. 
  2. Reaching geographically dispersed patients: By leveraging telemedicine solutions such as virtual visits and remote patient monitoring (RPM), providers can offer virtual care to patients in remote areas who otherwise would not have access to care.  
  3. Addressing social determinants of health (SDoH): By connecting with rural populations via telehealth technology, healthcare providers can promptly identify and address the underlying issues contributing to poor health outcomes, such as poverty and lack of access to healthy food.  
  4. Increasing medication adherence: Telemedicine programs help patients remember to take their medication through automated reminders and patient education that reinforces the need for medication adherence. 

Tips for Developing an Effective Rural Telehealth Program 

While telehealth is a powerful tool for rural providers to reach more patients, it requires proper planning and implementation. Keep these tips in mind when implementing your rural telehealth program to ensure the best outcomes:   

  1. Assess the needs of your community to determine which health conditions require telemedicine services.  
  2. Ensure adequate technology access and infrastructure, including secure internet connections and reliable devices.  
  3. Train clinicians and staff on how to use and integrate telemedicine technologies into existing workflow.  
  4. Develop policies and procedures that support the use of telehealth, including privacy and security measures as well as billing and reimbursement protocols. 
  5. Encourage adoption by implementing patient engagement strategies such as providing educational materials and promoting the benefits of telemedicine.

How SummitWest Care Used Telehealth to Expand Care in Rural Colorado 

SummitWest Care, a non-profit home health agency in Western Colorado, introduced a telehealth and RPM program in August 2020 to support chronic care patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. For SummitWest, this was a necessary step to address the healthcare challenges faced by rural communities in Colorado at the time, which included: 

  • Limited access to healthcare providers and health-related education 
  • Heightened anxiety among patients with pre-existing and chronic conditions 
  • Reduced hospital capacity due to COVID-19 hospitalizations 

The telehealth program consisted of daily COVID-19 screening questions, vital signs and symptoms triaging, weekly virtual visits for patient care plans, and customized care plans with educational videos. Through the program, the SummitWest team could monitor vital signs and symptoms 24/7 to quickly identify exacerbations and prevent hospitalizations, allowing patients to receive personalized care from the safety of their homes. 

In less than a year since launching the program, SummitWest had monitored both chronic care and COVID-19 patients, averaging a 6.6% 30-day hospital readmission rate and 90% patient adherence rate. Patient satisfaction was high, with 96% reporting feeling more supported by their care team due to telehealth services. 

A patient speaks to their doctor during a telemedicine virtual visit.

A patient speaks to their doctor during a telemedicine virtual visit.

Rural Health Care Coordination Program 

One of the biggest barriers for healthcare providers looking to implement telemedicine in rural areas is a lack of funding. In response to this need, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HRSA) has established the Rural Health Care Coordination Program to help promote rural healthcare services outreach. 

Through this program, providers can apply for funding of up to $300,000 per year for four years (September 1, 2023, to August 31, 2027) to support telehealth and RPM services as well as staffing needs. The grant application process closed on May 26, 2023 but new grant opportunities may be available. 

Search for open grant opportunities here

Grant and Reimbursement

Securing a Grant for a New RPM Program 

Explore ways to secure a telehealth grant and get the support you need to simplify your application process. 

Read this blog

Implementing Telehealth in Rural Areas with HRS  

Having the right technology, workflows, and support is essential to maximize the success of your rural telehealth initiatives.  

With over a decade of experience in enabling virtual care for hospitals and health systems, HRS is a trusted provider of telemedicine and RPM solutions. Our telehealth platform utilizes both Wi-Fi and 4G connectivity, enabling virtual visits and remote monitoring in rural regions. We also work closely with our clients to continuously evolve our technology and services to meet changing industry needs. 

Learn more about HRS and how we can support your telehealth program.