There is no way around it, if you are a rural hospital then you represent one of the most endangered hospitals out there today. In fact, there are 673 hospitals that are in danger of shutting down due to financial vulnerability, with 62 hospitals shuttered since 2010, according to iVantageIndex. This is out of a total of 2,078 rural hospitals today, so the situation is anything but good. While the reasons for these closures may vary: from staff shortages and equipment underuse to the reduced populations in many rural areas. Fortunately, emerging technologies like telemedicine offer a unique way for health care providers to bridge the healthcare gap that the eminent closure of more rural hospitals threatens to create. Telemedicine isn’t just a new technology in many of these rural areas, but one that is necessary for these areas to maintain some quality of care. It can be a major inconvenience for anyone, but particularly the sick or elderly, to drive hours just to receive the care that they need, and having telemedicine services available to take care of many of the appointments that would otherwise require hours of travel can make this care far easier. Additionally, patients are far more likely to schedule required medical appointments when that appointment is able to easily fit into their schedule, something that telemedicine easily allows. Healthcare professionals are understandably interested in this technology, and are asking plenty of questions about its capabilities today. Here are some of the questions that you might be asking yourself as you consider the use of telemedicine within rural communities. What types of appointments can be scheduled via telehealth? Any new system that is put into use in the healthcare industry has its benefits and drawbacks, and telehealth is no different. While it might be a great service for many different needs, when starting out with its’ use, you may want to scale back the types of appointments that you offer with telehealth. For rural patients, you might want to focus primarily on check-ups and regular follow-up appointments rather than start by immediately using the full suite of options available on your telehealth system, at least until you understand the capabilities better. That being said, telehealth can offer rural communities a number of options when it comes to getting medical treatment. This includes more advanced services like ongoing remote monitoring of in-home care, mobile imaging and lab specimen collection services, behavioral and mental health care options, and mobile imaging analysis of X-rays, just to name a few. The key to the ability to offer these things is the ability of telehealth services to make use of HD video and audio chat on all types of connections, regardless of speed. This is particularly true in rural areas, where internet connections run at a fraction of the speeds that are offered in most major cities. Cutting edge video chat technologies like those found at communication company Agora.io underpin most advanced telemedicine platforms today. As noted by Agora.io CEO Tony Zhao, “When implementing video chat functionality into your telemedicine app, that’s meant to connect and diagnose patients halfway around the world, it’s important that the signal is exceptionally strong regardless of where they are, what kind of network they’re on, be it 3G/4G or WiFi or the stability of that country’s infrastructure, because if the video is unclear and choppy, then there is no point to your international telemedicine app.” Even if you aren’t transmitting internationally, slow connection speeds cripple many rural networks, making the capability of your telemedicine software that much more important. How can telehealth benefit my patients? Telehealth provides a direct benefit to patients by giving them an alternative to a trip to a doctor that can take 4-6 hours in some cases. This not only allows patients to get what they need on their schedule, but reduces the rate of no-shows as well. On top of that, it can allow patients to get access to critical specialty care faster by using telemedicine, as evidenced by an Alaskan community that saw a greater than 31% drop in the time it took to schedule an appointment with an ENT practitioner. If you are concerned about the risk to the quality of care that you can provide via telemedicine, multiple studies have found that there is no loss of care quality by utilizing telemedicine. How can telehealth benefit my practice? Beyond the benefits that can accrue by reducing no-shows, telemedicine allows you to streamline your day far more by accepting patients over a secure video chat. This has been shown to improve the speed at which you can see each patient, with less stress on your office personnel. By using telemedicine in your hospital or practice, particularly with rural patients, you can improve the quality of care that your patients get by ensuring that they have more regular access to the specialists that they need, and you can use telemedicine to provide an increasingly wide variety of services to rural patients as well. One key aspect of this improvement is the improvement in video quality that can be seen on telemedicine services today, which allows rural patients with poor internet or data connections to receive the same level of care quality, even at lower bandwidth. Are you thinking of using telemedicine to better connect with your rural patients? Sound off on your concerns in the comments.