Approximately 20% of the U.S. population, totaling over 50 million people, lives in rural areas. Unfortunately, only 9% of practicing physicians serve these areas. The resulting lack of adequate access to care and resources has increased rural populations’ susceptibility to infections and diseases, mental health disorders, and ultimately, preventable death. Fortunately, telehealth has emerged and grown as a means of using communication technologies in the delivery of health-related services as well as education and patient care.
Over the last decade, numerous telehealth interventions have been tested to identify the greatest barriers to increased adoption, particularly in rural areas. For example, a 2011 study implementing a Telehelp Line, which offered supportive services through telephone counseling sessions for rural caregivers, emphasized the need for individualized training. While there is no magic bullet approach to widespread implementation of telehealth services, it seems imperative for researchers, innovators, and practitioners to be mindful of specific population needs.
For more specialized services such as anesthesia, recent advances in telehealth technologies equip patients and physicians with ample tools for remote communication without an ensuing decrease in quality of care. Physician-reported evidence supports the finding that anesthesiologists now have novel opportunities to extend perioperative consultations to geographically remote areas, while also reducing costs of care and achieving excellent clinical outcomes. Additionally, anesthesia is slated to be increasingly implemented by both formal and informal caregivers through remote support services.
Today, telehealth has the capacity to transcend clinical medicine. Rural populations experience considerable difficulties accessing treatment modalities for emotional and psychological trauma related to sexual and physical violence. The advent of distal technologies within telehealth, including secure, encrypted videoconferencing, now allow rural clients to connect with specialized, evidence-based services.
The ever-expanding scope of telehealth research and implementation serves as a testament to globalization and the capacity of health technologies. In fact, the most recently available evidence on telehealth in rural America points to a significantly higher adoption rate of remote services among rural practitioners over their urban counterparts. While factors such as population awareness, efficacy, cost-effectiveness, and ethical and legal issues require systematic assessment in the near future, one thing is clear: the future is bright for telehealth in rural America.
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