Telehealth has the potential to be a valuable, if not critical tool to increase access and quality of care for healthcare organizations.

This is even more true in rural communities.

The expanded use of telehealth technologies and processes can relieve transportation issues, grant specialist availability and greatly increase the viability of proactive, preventative care for vulnerable populations. And smart use of telemedicine can mean a world of difference for rural healthcare organizations who often struggle with funding, staffing and communication along the continuum of care.

Over the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency funding, reimbursement changes and sheer necessity paved the way for unprecedented use of telehealth. As we move forward through and out of the pandemic, it is highly likely that many of these changes will remain—changing the healthcare landscape permanently.

Despite such a positive outlook in the larger industry, and despite the incredible value that telehealth provides, licensing, infrastructure and technology fluency remain a challenge for expanded telehealth adoption.

Here are the top five obstacles for telehealth in rural communities:

1. Proprietary Hardware and Software is Expensive

To start carts are very expensive, ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000, and are proprietary. This means that they are not open-source and organizations are locked into a vendor.  Support costs are expensive, and training of internal teams for management and upkeep is time consuming. Or worse, organizations have to pay the vendor to completely manage the equipment (cha-ching).

On top of hardware costs, software is also pricey. This is because Cisco, PolyCom and Vidyo carts (the 3rd party video platforms that are the base of all existing telemedicine carts on the market) require the purchase of their video infrastructure—which can reach into the six-figure range. Next, layer on per user licensing and software patches and it really becomes a rabbit hole of costs. Tablet solutions are locked into these same expensive software considerations, despite the hardware price break.

2. Lack of Broadband Capabilities

Broadband is typically a necessary requirement for sophisticated telehealth technology—not only for providers but also patients in the home. Unfortunately, connectivity is spotty in much of rural America. So, things like telemonitoring are often completely off the table in these communities. The vast majority of hospitals and clinics have access to some type of broadband, but some of the more remote areas are far more sparse, with some patients lacking even reliable phone coverage.

3. Licensing Challenges for Providers

If a patient lives near a state border, physicians who want to practice across state lines need licensing for any state in which they practice. Under Covid-19 legislation, this loosened up a bit. For example, the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact (which includes Washington DC and 29 states) expanded the ability of providers to practice across state lines. Several states, such as Arizona, have since voted to make these changes permanent.

4. Low Expertise/Lack of IT staff

As a technology that has traditionally had little or no use in rural hospitals, clinical and IT staff are not accustomed to telehealth as a part of their usual workflows. Moving forward, there is a need for increased training and education across the board. Perhaps more importantly, these organizations are going to need to redefine their processes. Process design, technical expertise, change drivers will all become vital components of successful rural telehealth programs—and this is particularly acute for unaffiliated organizations.

Another gap in need of support lies in the selection process—helping these organizations make an informed decision on what platform to use and how to implement and maintain it over time. This often causes “paralysis analysis…or the opposite side of the spectrum, a too-hasty decision followed by regret. (This was seen in the era of EMR adoption several years ago).

5. Low Technology Proficiency of Rural Patients

Computer literacy, particularly for remote monitoring, is often another inhibitor of telehealth use. And yet, with projections that predict 85% percent of healthcare potentially moving to telehealth in the future, it will be vital to provide ongoing patient education as well as build systems that are increasingly simple and user-friendly.

Thankfully, lasting policy changes, reimbursement practices and culture shifts should make it increasingly easier for expanded telehealth use in both rural and urban markets. But, the ongoing challenges associated with managing unwieldly carts and tablets, heavy IT and staffing lifts for implementation and management, and expensive pricing continue to be a barrier for rural markets.

While It’s clear that rural hospitals throughout the country, and their patients, stand to benefit from telehealth, many struggle to choose an appropriate platform that fits their unique needs.

This is because while there are many telehealth options on the market, most either lack either the affordability, simplicity or functionality for rural hospital relevancy.

The Vitalchat team worked diligently to build an innovative platform that integrates with existing workflows and leverages low-cost hardware or even existing iPad/tablet, WOW, cart, in-room TV, computer, or phones at a fraction of the cost of other solutions. Most importantly, the whole experience is touchless–requiring zero management from staff and full provider control over visits. Additional features include SmartView, an AI powered patient monitoring application, and e-Sitter—all of which can greatly support lean rural hospitals with increased efficiency, lower costs and better quality of care.

For a demo of the Vitalchat platform, click here. Let our team show you how VitalChat can make a difference in your community.