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Telehealth Program to Drive Patient Care Access in Appalachia

A rural telehealth initiative will close patient care access gaps for individuals with pulmonary disease.

rural telehealth

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- A new funding initiative will help address patient care access shortages by using telehealth to connect patients in Appalachia to specialty providers in more physician-dense areas.

The $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will help train primary care providers who practice in Appalachia in using telehealth to consult with pulmonary specialists from the University of Virginia Health System.

Patients living in the Appalachian region of Virginia tend to experience lung disease at a higher rate than patients living in other areas, according to UVA. Compounding this issue are patient care access issues that so frequently impact patients living in rural areas.

Patients living in remote areas do not have convenient access to large medical centers. Geographic obstacles serve as a key barrier to care access. In Appalachia, access to subspecialty providers, like those who treat pulmonary disease, is 28 percent lower than the national average.

Telehealth has presented one opportunity to close those care gaps. Direct-to-consumer telehealth allows patients to connect with providers using video conference to make a diagnosis.

Healthcare providers can also use telehealth to consult with each other, helping to connect patients in their primary care offices to more specialized care at larger medical centers.

This UVA program will leverage the latter strategy, connecting primary care providers at Stone Mountain Health Services and The Health Wagon – which serve individuals living in Wise, Russell, Dickenson, Washington, Buchanan, Lee, Smyth, and Russell counties – with pulmonary specialists working at UVA.

“I’m excited to grow this program and think this has the potential to set the table for larger collaborative efforts to both prevent lung disease and better care for patients with lung disease,” said UVA pulmonologist Drew Harris, MD.

Harris is also medical director of the Black Lung Program at Stone Mountain Health Services.

The UVA Center for Telehealth will host ten educational sessions with the providers at Stone Mountain Health Services and The Health Wagon helping them to navigate the telehealth tools. Sessions will vary depending on the specific needs of the providers in attendance.

Specific subject areas may include smoking cessation, lung cancer screenings, sleep apnea, and pulmonary rehabilitation.

“I am looking forward to the opportunity to coordinate with UVA and have additional resources available to provide comprehensive pulmonary care to our black lung patients and patients with other forms of lung disease,” said Jody Willis, DNP, nurse practitioner for the Stone Mountain Health Services Black Lung Program. “A team-based coordinated effort will ensure our patients are receiving access to specialized care and aid in meeting a common goal of improved patient outcomes.”

The program plans to use multiple different types of technology to connect patient with provider, according to Kimberly Albro, DNP, FNP-BC, the program manager for Project ECHO at the UVA Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Science.

Adequate bandwidth and access to reliable wifi are key concerns for patients living in remote areas connecting to care via telehealth. The new UVA program hopes to use simple technology that would result in a low-bandwidth platform, creating more equitable access.

“We want to work closely with the local care providers to determine how we can assist them in making sure their patients have easier access to specialized care for lung disease,” Albro said in a statement. “Using a low-bandwidth platform, participants are able to join from a computer, landline or smartphone. No special equipment is required. They can join from home, the office, or out in the community. Greater connectivity results in broader participation, and we hope to reach as many providers across the region as the technology allows.”

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