Those of us that live in major cities often forget that access to some of the best hospitals in the world is a privilege rather than a right. Imagine having to travel hours to seek anything from a primary care appointment, to a specialized procedure, or to receive a second opinion on a complex case. That is the reality for many living in rural communities throughout the United States. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011 survey, 80% of adults visited their local emergency room only due to lack of access to a primary care provider.
Regional health care officials have announced $9 million in grants to help patients in rural communities in Montana and Wyoming. The trust said it will give a nearly $5 million grant to the state for mobile training and simulation centers to train health professionals in rural areas. An additional $4 million in grants will go to Billings Clinic’s Internal Medicine Residency program for rotations in rural areas.
Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana says, “These aren’t charitable gifts, from my perspective, they’re really investments in the health and well-being of Montana.”
Telemedicine has also been leading the way as a source of accessible care in rural communities. For example, patients can wear devices such as blood pressure and glucose monitors that can alert physicians to dangerous conditions. Being able to monitor such conditions at home can save patients wasted time traveling to routine doctor appointments and avoid clogging local emergency rooms. Although such monitoring still requires the occasional in-person visit, skype sessions and conferencing can also allow patients to speak to physicians from a distance. Particularly, virtual meetings have become popular in the area of tele-psychiatry.
According to Dr. Ronald S. Weinstein, founding director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program at the University of Arizona, “So many of the patients leave the community to come to the larger cities for their services, telemedicine is a way of reducing distance, to bring specialty medical services to underserved populations.” Telemedicine is not only beneficial to patients but also to the infrastructure of rural hospitals. “When rural patients know their hospital is using telemedicine, they have higher regard for that hospital and are less likely to bypass it for treatment at an urban facility,” said James Marcin, director of the UC Davis Children’s Hospital Pediatric Telemedicine Program.
A growing number of leading medical facilities are implementing second opinion programs to offer expert care globally. Barrow Neurological Institute, an international leader in a wide variety of neurological conditions implemented an online patient portal, image-enabled by DICOM Grid, that makes it easy for patients to upload complex images and reports in order to request a consultation. Within 30 days of rolling out the service, approximately 20% of online referrals resulted in new surgeries, many of them for out-of-state patients.