Telemedicine could be one way to improve rural health care

Published: Jun. 18, 2019 at 3:14 PM CDT
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It's a problem that has been growing in the healthcare industry.

How to give fast, effective care to people in rural areas that is also convenient for everyone.

"About one out of every six American lives in rural America. We have to find a way to serve them better from a healthcare point of view. You have a lot of disparities, you have much higher rates of heart disease, you have cancer declining much more slowly in rural areas than in urban areas," said Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan.

In La Crosse, one of the ways Gundersen Health System and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare are addressing the issue is by telemedicine.

Where patients in rural areas can see specialists or doctors remotely by webcam and other specialized equipment.

"Telehealth has the promise of delivering cutting edge technology in healthcare to people who live in remote areas, from prevention screening all the way to the end of life. And if we can leverage technology to do that, it's better for patients," said Mayo Clinic Health System Southwest Region Vice President Dr. Paul Mueller.

At Gundersen, patients at the St. Joseph's clinic in Hillsboro can use telemedicine to get care from specialists without having to make the more than 50 mile drive to La Crosse.

"Developing that therapeutic relationship can be more difficult on a screen, but people are used to that now and that's how they relate a lot to the world. So we want to evolve with folks and use the technology that they're used to and they use it all over their lives and I think that we can adapt healthcare to that as well," said Gundersen Health System CEO Dr. Scott Rathgaber.

Hargan hopes telemedicine can help address the specialist and physician shortage in rural America.

"We need access to their wisdom and to their judgment in areas like this so people in rural America can get the same good care in their communities that they would get if they lived in an urban setting," said Hargan.

Gundersen says so far the patients who have used telemedicine are happy with how it has gone.

An official with HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph's Hospitals issued a statement on rural health care:

"We know that improving access to care, particularly in rural communities, is fundamental to improving the health of residents in these communities. We believe that, to the greatest extent possible, health care should be local. Furthermore, care coordination must be seamless between rural providers and higher acuity providers to ensure the best outcomes for patients. This is why HSHS Sacred Heart and St Joseph’s Hospitals believe in supporting rural health care providers through initiatives like primary care clinic expansion, specialty care outreach, tele-health connectivity, and integrated electronic medical record platforms."