TELEMEDICINE UPTAKE IN RURAL AREAS HINGES ON BOLSTERED BROADBAND ACCESS:

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Rural America is disproportionately affected by hospital closures and doctor shortages, and telemedicine has been posed as a potential balm to widen consumer access to medical services and specialists in these areas. But rural areas with a scant supply of practicing doctors also lack broadband connectivity: 96% of city-dwellers subscribe to broadband services, but only 83% of people living in rural areas do — and the number plummets to 39% in counties where access to healthcare services are also scarce, according to new research cited in Reuters. 

Why this matters: Rural patients face increasingly meager access to healthcare services, but without broadband connectivity, telehealth efforts could fall short.

  • Many rural hospitals are confronted with the possibility of shuttering their doors. As of February, almost one-quarter of all rural hospitals in the US stood on uneven financial ground and were at risk of shutting down. And when hospitals close, patients could be left without a nearby healthcare facility, which makes seeking care difficult and ultimately more expensive. And that’s only heightened by the fact that rural patients may have a greater need for healthcare services since they’re more likely to suffer from many chronic conditions than those living in urban areas: For example, rural residents are 17% more likely to have a type 2 diabetes diagnosis than urban residents, per Rural Health Information Hub.
  • And the alleged saving grace of telemedicine isn’t likely to live up to the hype if patients can’t get online. Telemedicine is often touted as a band-aid that’ll fix the rural healthcare crisis since it doesn’t require patients to leave their homes to get care. In fact, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has been working to loosen regulation so telehealth benefits are more accessible and cheaper to offer to Medicare Advantage patients. But since less than 40% of patients who have giant hurdles to clear to get care — like driving over an hour to see their physician — have access to broadband services, efforts made by rural providers to implement telemedicine might turn out to be futile.

Details:

There’s a beacon of hope for rural telemedicine access as efforts to get rural consumers connected are poised to take off.

  • The US government and major telecom companies are doubling down on getting broadband connectivity into rural homes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unveiled the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in March to funnel over $20 billion to subsidize companies that expand broadband networks across rural US; this should equip 4 million homes with broadband access. And telecom giant T-Mobile already had a plan in the works before the FCC announced its project: It launched a pilot program in March that’s slated to extend its wireless broadband connectivity to 50,000 rural homes by the year’s end. We expect more broadband companies to develop similar strategies as they race to carve out a place in the market.
  • And a spike in rural broadband connectivity means that hospitals’ telemedicine efforts could start to pay off. As the threat of closures and a shrinking supply of physicians sweeps across rural hospitals, the need for telemedicine has never been higher. With the strong emerging possibility that underserved patients will be the recipients of better internet access, we may start to see an uptick in rural hospitals bulking up telemedicine strategies and rural patients reaping the benefits.