Rural areas cannot be treated as smaller versions of urban spaces and critical health IT systems must be put in place to meet the challenges faced in rural healthcare delivery, experts say at HIMSS14.
Healthcare communities in rural areas are facing many challenges in obtaining financial support and implementing health information technology systems in a sustained way.
There is an urgent need for collaborative efforts to accelerate health IT adoption in rural areas.
Experts opined at the pre-conference symposium “Health IT and Rural Healthcare: Embracing Opportunities and Overcoming Challenges”, held on the sidelines of Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Annual Conference and Exhibition 2014.
"Rural is not a smaller version of urban"
“Sparsely populated rural areas are vastly different from urban centers where most of the health policy is developed. Rural healthcare provider base focuses mainly on outpatient, primary care and the chronic disease management.”
“The payer mix is also different with a heavier reliance on Medicare and Medicaid. Small hospitals are struggling with regulatory burdens. Technology infrastructure is limited and scaling up is a barrier for adopting health IT,”
“Geography with its vast spaces between care facilities is an obstacle for both patients and providers. All these ongoing and unique rural challenges must be addressed if the promise and potential of telehealth and health IT is to be turned into results.”
Rural Healthcare and the use of EHRs
Murphy said that adoption and Meaningful Use of EHRs, exchange of health information along with Medicare incentives and penalties will lead to:
- Improved individual and population health outcomes
- Improved transparency and efficiency
- A greater ability to study and improvise rural care delivery
"Meaningful use is a means to an end"
“With $21 billion in incentives doled out so far, that goal of improved outcomes gets closer each day. We have gotten smarter and I do believe we have reached a tipping point."
64% of rural physicians in the US are participating in the EHR incentive program which is the same rate as the national average.
However, rural hospitals, with 82% EHR adoption, are lagging behind the national average of 94%.
Judy Murphy said that thus far approximately 80% small hospitals and Critical Access Hospitals (small remote hospitals with no more than 25 inpatient beds but provide 24/7 emergency care with reimbursements from the US Medicare) with Health IT Regional Extension Centers for assistance on their path to Meaningful Use.
Rural areas using advanced health IT
Matt Quinn, Director of Healthcare Initiatives at Federal Communications Commission, said that FCC is supporting 50 statewide and regional broadband HCP (Health Care Providers) networks.
Subsidizing the rate difference between rural and urban areas for telehealth services provided for HCPs in rural areas to expand connectivity for health IT services.
Explaining the experimental licensing rules issued recently by the FCC, Quinn said that the US is the first country in the world to allocate spectrum for Medical Body Area Networks.
A network of body-worn sensors placed on a patient in order to monitor physiological data and perform diagnostic and therapeutic functions, that, in turn, are wirelessly linked to a nearby external control unit, will help the healthcare industry to better evaluate how wireless technologies can be useful in rural hospital environments.
The day-long symposium also discussed various federal, state, and private-sponsored programs, funding, tools and best practices for rural providers and identified future needs in health IT programs and research for rural healthcare organizations.