Telemedicine may be able to significantly help healthcare access in the rural parts of the United States, according to a report by health care company UnitedHealth Group (Minnetonka, Minn., U.S.A.).
According to the report, there are only 65 primary care physicians per 100,000 rural Americans -- 40 less than the 105 per 100,000 urban and suburban Americans.
The Group projects that around 8 million more rural residents will join Medicaid, state and government-subsidized insurance plans in the national coverage expansions than would have otherwise -- a net expansion of some five million people.
Already five million rural residents live in "shortage areas" defined by the federal government as counties with less than 33 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents, according to the company. Per capita in rural areas there is less than half the number of surgeons and other specialists.
According to the report, telemedicine technologies are crucial to rural areas where distance and low patient and provider density contribute to these health care challenges.
Recommendations put forth by the company include expanding broadband connectivity for telemedicine adoption, encouraging health physicians to adopt telemedicine in their practices, raising patient comfort levels with this technology, and using telemedicine to build primary care capacity.
The company makes it clear that there is a long way to go before a full adoption of telemedicine services. According to the report, fewer than 10% of rural hospitals use remote monitoring of patients, a total of 25% participate in tele-cardiology and video teleconferencing for consultations, and only 10 % use tele-emergency services.
UnitedHealth calls for a coordinated effort by patients, providers, private and public sectors to ensure that coverage expansions do not make existing problems worse.
"The next few years will be times of considerable stress on rural health care," the conclusions state, "but also times of great opportunity."