A Boost for Telehealth That Can Make a Real Difference in Rural Areas

 Rural communities in Maine and across America face several challenges when it comes to health care – including higher rates of some chronic diseases, isolation, and lack of transportation options. But the emergence of new and innovative telemedicine technology, like videoconferencing with a doctor from home, is helping to revolutionize the way rural health care is delivered. And that can make a big difference in the lives of Maine people.

 Telehealth technologies are already having a positive impact here in Maine, particularly for our seniors. Developments like videoconferencing and remote patient monitoring are helping connect people with medical professionals while remaining within the comfort of their homes. These new technologies also support medical education efforts within the health care community, helping rural health care providers learn new skills and access information that allow them to better serve their communities.

 This week, the U.S. Senate gave a boost to that momentum by overwhelmingly passing a bill (97 votes to zero!) to expand on successes in telemedicine – particularly its ability to facilitate training and mentoring for doctors. The legislation, the ECHO Act, would build on the positive impact of the Project Extension for Community Health Outcomes (Project ECHO), which is a medical education model that uses interactive videoconferencing to connect primary health care providers in rural areas with specialist teams that provide teaching and mentoring. Project ECHO has already been used to address conditions like diabetes, hepatitis C, chronic pain, and addiction. And if this bill becomes law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be required to conduct a study on the model and its potential impact for rural and underserved areas.

 By some estimates, only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas, despite the fact that nearly one fourth of Americans live in those rural areas. There is a gap there that we need to fill, and that is why telemedicine can be such a valuable tool. The videoconference education and training provided through the Project ECHO model, for example, works to address challenges in rural health care by creating more training opportunities for local primary care providers on the ground in rural communities, improving patients’ access to high quality care that is closer to home, and decreasing health care system costs.

 As a member of the Health Information and Management Systems Society’s Capitol Hill Steering Committee on Telehealth and Healthcare Informatics, I’ll continue to work with my colleagues to support technology developments that can improve rural health care. Part of that effort has to be expanding rural broadband, which is a critical component to telemedicine technology and its availability.

 Our experience on the ground in Maine has already shown that telemedicine can help revolutionize the way rural health services are delivered. This is all about bridging rural divides and making health care more accessible and affordable, and with positive steps like the ECHO Act passing the Senate, we are on our way to expanding the encouraging telehealth trends already on display across rural America.