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Using Technology to Address Social Determinants of Health in Rural Communities

Derek S. Landes, MSW, the telehealth coordinator of Missouri Rural Health Association (MRHA), shares insights about the use of technology to improve healthcare outcomes in rural communities. Technology tools can increase access to services, reduce barriers to care, and improve overall health outcomes in rural areas. 

Rural communities struggle with many health challenges, including lower life expectancy, higher rates of poverty, and difficulties accessing specialized care. Derek S. Landes notes that improving the complicated problems of rural healthcare requires consideration of each area's specific needs and creative thinking about solutions that can benefit multiple locations. He is particularly excited about the tool of technology in bridging these gaps and improving outcomes.

Derek S. Landes observes that there are "not enough boots on the ground to handle" the many healthcare needs that arise, and technology is a way to "bridge the gap," as telehealth can provide medical services to rural areas that otherwise would not be available. With more rural hospitals closing, it's essential to recognize the challenges to accessing care in a rural community, including the distance to a facility, obtaining transportation, and issues such as privacy and access to specialists. Outsourcing healthcare to larger metropolitan areas harms rural communities as it can lead to communities not trusting their new providers, as well as the economic impact on small communities, as rural healthcare centers tend to be major employers. 

Telehealth programs like those overseen by Mr. Landes and the MRHA help coordinate rural hospitals with other healthcare centers as well as a larger virtual hospital which can provide education for providers and link patients to the specific services they need. With the push of a button, people in rural areas are able to see a specialized provider. Such programs can keep funding at the local level by credentialing the telehealth providers with regional centers. When more extensive programs link multiple healthcare centers together, this helps spread both resources and solutions. 

This type of technology can do even more than link patients to specialists. For patients, such services can help monitor chronic healthcare conditions, decreasing the amount of time and effort required for a simple follow-up appointment, for example, by allowing them to check in with a provider over the phone. Through pharmaceutical programs, patients can also use telehealth to access medicine. When people in rural communities seek mental health care, they can see a telemental care provider, which can reduce privacy and confidentiality issues for both the provider and patient, which can be a significant concern in many rural communities. Additionally, inclusive healthcare providers are much easier to access via technological means, helping people to link up with providers who can meet their cultural needs and LGBTQIA+ sensitive care

Ongoing funding, access, and infrastructure improvements will only help connect rural communities with necessary healthcare services. Improved broadband capacity will make it easier to access services, and legislation addressing payment for phone appointments and asynchronous services are regulation pieces currently in consideration by lawmakers right now, influencing both access and reimbursement issues. 

Derek S. Landes points out that while technological solutions can improve healthcare outcomes, such programs cannot eliminate brick-and-mortar healthcare centers. He notes that people will always need a place to see a primary care provider, an emergency services center, or a place to receive specific treatments such as chemotherapy. However, technology can enhance the services offered and greatly benefit rural areas. 

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Derek S. Landes, MSW is the telehealth coordinator at Missouri Rural Health Association. As a social worker and former substance abuse counselor, he is focused on increasing health equity and reducing barriers to care in rural communities. 


By: Megan E. O’Laughlin

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