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Expert Opinion: Telehealth Provides Antidote for ‘Help Wanted’ in Rural America

in Expert Opinion/Health by

Rural Americans are sicker, poorer and more likely to be uninsured than their urban counterparts. Vital human capital links in our nation’s information and healthcare supply chain are missing in rural America, and we need more skilled health care professionals in those communities.

Telehealth capabilities offer an antidote to the rural health care conundrum by remotely connecting rural patients with health care services locally or miles away. Telehealth video conferencing and remote patient monitoring are increasingly essential applications for providers in rural America, reducing transportation as a barrier to care, creating operational efficiencies and improving care quality.

A doctor’s visit by video conference is a common application. In order for information to get from the patient to the provider, data travels along broadband telecommunications lines to medical equipment or other hardware and is then accessible to the medical provider.

Who makes sure the equipment is working properly in the rural community? And who fixes it when it’s not? IT technicians who are woefully in short supply in rural communities. The absence of IT skills has profound implications on the wellbeing of tens of millions living outside urban areas.

The national shortage of medical providers is well documented. Primary care providers necessary to treat newly insured patients under the Affordable Care Act are in short supply. The health IT professionals who support medical personnel are similarly scare.

A lagging IT skillset coupled with a dramatic increase in reliance on new technologies threatens to exacerbate disparities between rural and urban America. A recent study by the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) concluded that demand for qualified health IT workers is at its highest point ever with no solution in sight. A 2013 report by Research and Markets estimated that global telemedicine market demand will grow by 18.5 percent through 2018.

The federal government, through the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies is investing heavily in telemedicine programs and the telecommunications broadband enhancements necessary to power the transmission of information. But government funding for new technologies is not enough. We still need IT professionals in place to maintain and troubleshoot the technology.

Bolstering the IT skill set in rural America has the potential to promote economic growth as well. In Mississippi, where health outcomes rank near the bottom of all states, an innovative program aims to create healthier communities and stimulate economic growth. The Delta Regional Authority and University of Mississippi Medical Center initiated a partnership last year to create a telehealth delivery and education center with the goals of increasing patient access to care and expanding medical training statewide. The program will create 200 new jobs.

The first step to solving any problem is recognizing you have one, and key policy makers in Washington D.C. know it. They’ve taken steps to work with industry groups like COMPTEL, the Competitive Communications Association, private companies such as Rural Health Telecom and others to initiate a nationwide focus on solving the skill set problem.

Rural Americans should not be second class citizens when it comes to health care. It’s time to ramp up the effort to add missing human skills to the technical knowhow of telehealth.

Editors’ Note: The views represented are a commentary by Tim Koxlien, CEO, Rural Health Telecom, and do not necessarily represent the views of Broadband Breakfast. We encourage other perspectives on broadband by emailing commentary@broadbandcensus.com.

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