Progress for Small and Rural Health

Today’s small and rural healthcare providers still find themselves hindered by financial and staffing limitations amidst growing industry standards and regulations. As patient expectations evolve in the transition to value-based care, these organizations’ IT capabilities fall behind the curve. Lack of budget prevents the ability to transition EHR vendors or bring in outside resources to aid with optimization initiatives. With limited staff, practices cannot pull individuals away from regular duties to focus on IT training. In turn, practices struggle with moving beyond inefficient workflows and processes or being able to effectively gather and analyze data for quality measures. For rural health, geographic location also limits patient engagement and population health management capabilities. Patients are less likely to complete wellness visits or additional health maintenance when they have long commutes or limited access to physicians.

Despite these small and rural health IT challenges, positive progress across the industry can aid these struggling providers.

Mobile health- Mhealth app usage doubled from 2013 to 2015, according to a PwC survey, and growth is expected to continue in 2017. Mobile health applications can help isolated healthcare providers improve outreach, population health management and patient engagement efforts, while keeping patients out of the hospital. Mhealth capabilities can also expand rural providers’ impact on patient follow-up care and wellness decisions for improved care delivery. M-health capabilities can expand small and rural providers’ impact on patient follow-up care and wellness decisions for improved care delivery.

Telemedicine- According to a recent survey, 20 percent of patients would switch their current primary care provider if another provider offered them telehealth visits. Congress’ 2016 passing of the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act offers opportunity for remote and rural health providers to offset budget, specialty care and staffing limitations. ECHO expands Project ECHO’s model that pairs academic medical specialists with primary-care providers through virtual clinics for mentoring with behavioral and population health management. Proven through several academic studies, Project ECHO’s model overcomes rural physicians’ physical isolation through cost-effective access to specialty care best practices.

HRSA funding- The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) allocated more than $16 million toward rural health telehealth and quality improvement initiatives. Administered by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, funding benefits 60 rural communities amongst 32 states. Of that, seven Rural Health Research Centers will receive $700,000 annually to investigate the health, economic and access challenges among these populations and how federal programs are impacting care and outcomes.

Interoperability- Small and rural health providers are often at the mercy of their EHR vendors in terms of willingness and capability of data sharing, as well as necessary version updates to meet with reporting requirements. With the passing of the 21st Century Cures Act, the U.S. government now clearly defines data blocking while issuing a commitment to holding the private sector accountable for transparency in health IT. This puts pressure on vendors to enable interoperability, which better connects small and rural providers for better patient care and safety across patients’ medical journeys.