UPMC expert: Telehealth seeks to overcome barriers in rural communities
Using the internet and wireless devices seems like second nature in our modern lives, but did you know that as many as 800,000 Pennsylvanians, or 6% of the commonwealth’s population, does not have access to broadband internet? These individuals and families lack the same connectivity options and technological opportunities as those with fast, strong, and reliable internet service. While this may have just been a minor inconvenience in the past, in today’s world, many services continue to shift to internet-based models – apps, virtual visits and tours, etc. – and these individuals are facing disparities.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine has become increasingly important to providing health care.
For patients who live in rural communities or medically underserved areas, telemedicine can provide the following benefits:
• Access to high-quality health care and specialty services
• Less travel and travel expenses
• Earlier detection and faster diagnosis
• Easier chronic condition management
• Fewer hospitalizations
Telemedicine, however, is only an option for patients who have a reliable internet connection. Without high-speed internet, it can be challenging for health care providers to deliver telemedicine. Even those who live in rural areas with smart phones may encounter spotty connection and inconsistent service, which makes delivering quality care nearly impossible.
To ensure that individuals and families who reside in rural communities have equitable access to health care, we must improve their broadband coverage as well as implement user-friendly models of care considering shared resources.
Telehealth is a secure, easy-to-use method that lets you share health care information or have a video visit with a health care provider from your home. When it comes to telemedicine vs. telehealth, telemedicine is technically a type of telehealth, and the terms are used interchangeably.
It can be very helpful if you live far from your provider’s office, specialty services are not readily accessible in your region, or if you are too busy to go to an in-person appointment. For a telehealth visit, all you need is a smartphone, tablet, or computer with a camera.
If high-speed internet or a strong, reliable cellular signal is not available where you live, many health care providers now offer telemedicine or telehealth clinics. Through these clinics, you visit a medical office where broadband service is available and you’re seen similarly to how you would be at any other provider visit. A nurse or medical technician will be in the exam room with you to facilitate the virtual interaction with your provider. By asking questions and examining you using video technology, your provider can treat you and the nurse or technician helps provide vital signs, support, and follow-up care as needed. Virtual visits take about the same amount of time as regular office visits.
You can schedule a telehealth visit the same way you would an in-person appointment, and telehealth visits allow you to connect with providers in primary care, internal medicine, urgent care, and even specialists, with a referral from your primary care or internal medicine provider. Call your provider and ask whether a telehealth visit is right for you. If your provider offers telehealth services, his or her office can schedule your appointment and let you know anything you need for it.
Telehealth reimbursement varies depending on the health insurance payor. Many private and government health care plans have expanded telehealth coverage. Contact your health plan and ask if they cover or reimburse for video visits offered in your region.
Chad Hunter is the project manager for Telehealth Services, UPMC in North Central Pa. For more information on telehealth services offered at UPMC, visit UPMC.com.