Washington, DC – Today, the Bipartisan Policy Center recognizes National Rural Health Day by promoting how technology can better improve access to care in rural communities. COVID-19 has led to a dramatic increase in the use of telehealth across the United States. Before the pandemic, weekly telehealth visits averaged 12,000 nationally. Now the number of weekly visits is more than one million.
Since Congress and the administration reduced regulatory barriers to telehealth services during the pandemic, providers have successfully utilized this important tool to provide the care that people need from a safe distance. While these changes are temporary, BPC’s Rural Health Task Force is recommending permanent solutions that will address persistent, urgent health care access problems in rural areas.
National Rural Health Day was created in 2010 by the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health and is celebrated by the 50 State Offices of Rural Health and organizations across the country as a way to showcase rural America; increase awareness of rural health-related challenges; and promote the efforts of health care workers in these remote areas.
Today, an estimated 57 million people – nearly one in five Americans – live in rural and frontier communities throughout the United States and face unique health care needs. And as of 2017, 32.1% of tribal lands and 26.4% of rural areas lacked access to broadband, compared to only 1.7% in urban areas and 6.5% in the U.S. as a whole, according to the most recent FCC data available.
“Rural Americans were struggling to access high quality, affordable health care before COVID-19, but the pandemic has demonstrated just how deep and difficult those challenges really are,” said Marilyn Serafini, BPC Health Director. “That’s why telehealth, both during and after COVID-19, is critical in rural communities. We must break down the barriers to technology in these remote areas and continue the expanded use of telehealth after this national public health emergency.”
To address these challenges, BPC’s task force released a report earlier this year, Confronting Rural America’s Health Care Crisis, that offered policy proposals to expand the use of telehealth, many of which have been enacted on a temporary basis during the pandemic.
Recommendations for Increasing Access to Health Care Services in Rural Areas:
- Support efforts and strengthen investments in expanding broadband and collecting accurate broadband data in rural and tribal areas.
- Remove restrictions that prevent the use of currently available technology and devices that can be used for telehealth, such as a patient’s telephone, especially in areas without broadband access.
- Expand the list of authorized sites of service for telehealth; for example, using a patient’s home to serve as the originating site for virtual visits.
- Streamline licensure requirements so providers can practice telehealth across state lines.
- Prioritize rural-specific training curricula for the health IT workforce.
“Rural America struggles with a serious shortage of primary care clinicians, and particularly specialists, and recent hospital and clinic closures have exacerbated the situation,” said Serafini. “Telehealth enables rural communities to tap into provider networks in areas without clinician shortages. It also helps address the challenges that so many rural residents have when they live long distances from health care providers by allowing them to receive care at home when appropriate.”
Read more about National Rural Health Day PowerofRural.org