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We’ve come a long way in medicine over the last decade, but the struggle to merely access quality health services for the 15 to 20 percent of patients who live in rural areas across the United States remains real, leading to frustration and serious health consequences.

The good news is, recent surges in telehealth deployments from healthcare organizations around the country are providing a pathway to better and more accessible care, especially for people in rural areas.

Ultimately, the greatest impact will be realized when providers can convince their patients and the community at large of the benefits of virtual care—to do things like engage a specialist or simply ensure on-demand access no matter how far a patient may be from a provider.

Here are four best practices to consider when developing a rural telehealth strategy.

1 Put patient engagement first

When the health system Avera sought to implement a telehealth solution, it hoped to provide support for multiple use cases beyond urgent care and enable patient access via multiple end-points (e.g., mobile, web, kiosk) to ensure a high-quality online care experience—one that would encourage patient participation and engagement.

Putting the patient experience first through telehealth enabled Avera to grow. Since launching AveraNow in the summer of 2015, Avera has seen patient enrollments and visits increase.

2 Tailor telehealth to patient preferences

The best way to secure buy-in from patients is to design a telehealth program that caters to their specific needs. For example, 67 percent of patients ages 55 and older are willing to try virtual care for chronic care visits, according to American Well’s Telehealth Index: 2019 Consumer Survey. Practices that see a high number of seniors, therefore, need their telehealth platform to support chronic care management.

For middle-aged patients, on the other hand, emphasizing the ability of telehealth to support prescription renewals is key, given the fact that 42 percent of consumers ages 45 to 54 who use mobile health apps rely on pharmaceutical apps, according to the same survey.

3 Don’t feel you have to do it alone

If cost is a barrier to implementing telehealth, look for opportunities to partner with health plans that are already using telehealth. More and more health plans are investing in telehealth and encouraging their provider partners to collaborate and use telehealth as part of value-based contracts.

When health systems are willing to partner and bring concrete success metrics to demonstrate ROI, health plans are eager to collaborate. Working directly with a health plan’s telehealth solution also gives providers the opportunity to test the waters before investing in their own technology.

4 Collaborate with specialists

Patients requiring care from a variety of providers are greatly challenged in rural areas, especially when providers are not located near one another.

Collaborating with specialists to streamline healthcare by offering consultations through a single platform ensures patients get the care they need in a timely, efficient manner while dramatically expanding the breadth of services available for in rural areas.

The future is bright

Historically, limited access to high-speed internet has been a barrier to telehealth implementation in rural communities. But access to high-speed broadband Internet is growing. As rural healthcare organizations embrace telehealth, now is the time to consider what is needed to create a value proposition for rural residents and physicians that improves quality, stretches limited resources and elevates care across the continuum.

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