One silver lining from the COVID pandemic has been the acceleration of telehealth services

As the number of coronavirus cases grows, many patients are using Telehealth to receive routine medical care. It is also helping address other challenges in rural America.

The number of patients trying out virtual care roughly doubled at the start of the pandemic and has been seeing steady growth since then.

Maine Senator Angus King, an Independent, says that he has been working on telehealth policy for years and says that it is especially beneficial to rural Americans.

According to King, “One of the few silver linings of this pandemic has been the incredible acceleration of the adoption and expansion of the availability of telehealth, particularly in rural areas and that is close to my heart for the state of Maine, because we are predominantly a rural state.”

Acadia Hospital supports seventeen emergency departments in the state of Maine, plus 42 primary care locations, using telehealth services.

Hospital President Scott Oxley says that they have an 80 percent approval rating from telehealth patients and many prefer the virtual format.

“Telehealth services does just a fabulous job connecting to people in need of those services,” Oxley states. “It’s not only a convenience but it really breaks away a lot of the barriers for those folks that are struggling financially, struggling with their illness to get out their home, and allowing us to connect directly with them.”

Recruiting and retaining physicians in rural America is another key challenge telehealth is helping address. Acadia has 57 providers on staff, with nine in other states, allowing those practitioners to provide care without relocating.

“It’s a little cumbersome to work through, it hasn’t been a show stopper, but so far being able to extend our workforce, both on an inbound and outbound basis has been such a benefit to us and we’re just happy to have extra providers available to take care of people from Maine,” Oxley adds.

At the onset of the pandemic, lawmakers worked with the Department of Health to quickly implement more flexibility for telehealth. Now, policy leaders want to see those provisions made permanent.

Dena McDonough, Health Project Associate Director, notes, “Our recommendations were more about allowing patients to get care in their homes, allowing rural health clinics to provide those services, and allowing telephone use. Most of these were implemented as part of the public health emergency, which is great, but as the discussion turns to what to phase out and what to make permanent, we really want to make sure the unique characteristics of rural America aren’t overlooked.”

Senator King also made it clear that expanding broadband access is critical for the success of telemedicine, as patients must be able to connect to receive care.


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