How care will undergo a revolution in rural communities

Small rural organizations will use technology to better coordinate care, enabling providers to make the most of limited resources.

Rural healthcare providers, including rural health clinics, are on the precipice of a revolution powered by technology that will improve patients' quality of care.

In rural markets, coordinating care using all available technology resources will be more critical than ever, enabling providers to make the most of limited resources.

Data from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform and the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that at least 150 rural hospitals nationwide have closed or stopped providing inpatient hospital services in recent years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the trend isn’t likely to subside soon.

Using tools like artificial intelligence, telehealth and integration with electronic health record systems are critical to ensuring rural patients receive the quality care they deserve.

However, providing quality care to patients in rural settings will not be easily achieved if rural clinics, hospitals and emergency departments don’t work in tandem or have technology tools or access to data.

Providers will continue to adopt telehealth

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60 million Americans, or 20 percent of the country’s population, live in rural areas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people living in rural areas have a higher mortality rate related to heart diseases, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and stroke, compared with those living in urban areas.

Further compounding the landscape, access to public transportation is often more limited in rural markets, making it more challenging for those who most need to visit a healthcare provider to do so. However, the continued adoption of telehealth can bridge the gap.

Access to high-quality broadband Internet is still a significant challenge for many rural healthcare providers. While the government’s investment in broadband access may help to bridge the digital gap, it can take time to see the benefits.

However, healthcare providers cannot always wait for these investments to come to fruition. Patients demand improved healthcare delivered with the best technology, regardless of their ZIP Code.

A cloud-based EHR system is the best solution for underserved and isolated healthcare providers. This type of system can significantly reduce IT and bandwidth requirements while providing high configurability and minimizing change orders and coding efforts.

Open application programming interfaces (APIs) are vital to unlocking the value of cloud-based EHR systems. SaaS-based EHR platforms facilitate integration with other applications, enhancing the core EHR’s capabilities and leading to a more comprehensive clinical intelligence system.

AI to dominate conversations

While artificial intelligence is a hot topic and has embedded itself into nearly every conversation, its uses in healthcare depend on its ability to improve the quality of care and patient outcomes. However, AI doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it requires reliable data.

While today’s doctors have more detailed information about a patient’s history, it doesn’t always live in one location. It also helps to prevent the drain of healthcare costs on their system because providers are not repeating tests that have already yielded results. Providers can use what someone else has drawn on visiting the emergency department or hospital and use those results to inform their thinking rather than re-running the same tests, which is a financial drain on the healthcare system and slows the process.

Consider a patient who has already had blood drawn. Rather than jab them again, which requires them to go into a clinic or a lab a second time, why can’t providers use those same general results? AI can help streamline those processes and analyze patient records to deliver providers with the most pertinent data — and potentially even help diagnose patients.

Now’s the time to build data

The first step toward building a quality healthcare system of the future is to consolidate data and make it quickly accessible when needed. Only then can providers start to leverage the power of AI. In doing so, they will see patterns in patients that might have gone unnoticed.

As an example, a patient with a high body mass index may have diabetes, even if they weren’t officially diagnosed. Diabetes and obesity increase a patient’s risk score, so providers are increasingly leveraging a lot of risk modeling to keep scores — and ultimately costs — lower.

Risk modeling is already in use but is becoming increasingly prevalent. Medicare Advantage and other plans are also moving toward using risk scoring, giving some level of urgency for providers to adopt the approach.

Rural coordination of care

Coordination of care among healthcare facilities will continue to grow in importance, empowering them to use all the available resources. The goal is laudable – keeping healthcare costs down by keeping patients out of the emergency department.

The industry will see more coordination in the community, with everybody working together to care for patients. To accomplish this, the systems at rural health clinics and hospitals must communicate effectively.

Done properly, different systems can communicate about a patient, providing insight into what tests have been performed and previous diagnoses, giving providers the data to make decisions about future care.

Programs are in place to improve nursing recruitment and retention, and these initiatives will continue to expand. Similarly, an emphasis and increased funding on loan forgiveness for nurses and physicians could help entice providers who agree to work in rural areas.

Additionally, the industry will shift to “simplified healthcare delivery” in the year ahead.

Rural hospitals are taking advantage of a new Rural Emergency Hospitals designation that lets struggling rural facilities reduce services and continue operating with only outpatient and emergency services. While it’s a new program, more critical access hospitals are converting to rural emergency hospitals.

Additionally, there is a rise in healthcare management companies that are brought in or sometimes even purchase facilities to streamline operations and service delivery to improve profitability. These simplified delivery models and systems require a more lightweight technology package — a simple, cloud-based system for their EHRs.

The future looks bright for increasing patients’ quality of care. Are you prepared for what comes next?

Baha Zeidan is CEO of Azalea Health.

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