The Role of Telehealth in Helping Rural Populations Amidst the Opioid Crisis

Updated on December 13, 2017

Screen Shot 2017 12 13 at 6.26.36 AMBy Lee Horner

The opioid crisis is one of the more serious health issues our nation is facing today. According to the CDC, the US is experiencing an unprecedented increase in drug overdose deaths and opioid-involved deaths. More than six out of ten drug overdose deaths involve an opioid; the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) has quadrupled since 1999. Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

Rural areas have been particularly hit hard by the opioid crisis, as these areas suffer from high rates of unemployment and poverty while also relying on manual labor industries that can lead to chronic pain. NPR reported that researchers surmise that larger economic, environmental, and social factors have left rural Americans susceptible to the crisis. As these areas are more likely to be hubs for manufacturing, farming, mining, and similar industries, rural residents, unfortunately, tend to have higher injury rates as a result. Living in these areas, and working in these fields (oftentimes with job-induced injuries) can lead to more pain, and potentially more painkiller use.

Rural hospitals face unique challenges in delivering healthcare during the current opioid crisis.  The use of video tools can allow rural hospitals to extend the reach and resonance of their facility and staff, especially when distances between providers and patients are great, and while access to treatment and recovery specialists is limited.

Telehealth can strengthen the delivery of a few aspects of opioid-related care which rural residents value, including timely and convenient access to information, communication, and support. With video-based technology, rural hospitals can provide impactful access and immediate action to affected populations.

When a rural hospital is short-staffed or understaffed with specialists who can diagnose and treat opioid-related situations, medical staff can use telehealth to quickly access offsite specialists who can provide a needed virtual consult on demand. Appropriate treatment or transfer decisions can be made quickly, and patients can receive the care they need in a more timely manner, regardless of where the patient or specialist is located.

When a rural patient is sent home after being discharged, telehealth can help treatment specialists stay in more convenient and more frequent contact with at-home patients. With virtual visits, specialists and related care providers can follow up with rural patients and bring care conveniently to a patient’s home, without requiring a patient (or the medical professional) to travel long distances for the follow-up appointments. Transportation and travel-related expenses are also minimized and appointment “no shows” are reduced. 

With video-based tools, at-home patients also have the ability to proactively reach out to their specialists and other care team members with questions and condition-related concerns in real-time. Virtual visits allow the specialist to quickly answer the patient’s request for care, address the patient’s immediate need, and continue to drive adherence to the ongoing treatment and recovery plan.

When an at-home patient has an emerging critical situation, telehealth can help specialists quickly respond to the patient’s urgent need, access other resources that may be needed for a virtual consult, or even transport the patient to a care facility. Regardless of the geographical distance between the patient, the specialists, and other care team members, a virtual consult can result in highly responsive critical care decisions when immediate intervention is needed.

A vital rural community is dependent on the health of its population. Access to medical care does not guarantee good health; however, access to healthcare is critical for a population’s wellbeing and optimal health. Rural hospitals will continue to embrace telehealth and video-based care conversations to augment and accelerate their current methods of providing treatment and recovery support to residents struggling with the opioid crisis. The video delivery of care can transform a rural hospital’s ability to serve far-reaching residents in the midst of the opioid crisis, and can provide rural residents with access to needed treatment and recovery support in order to improve outcomes and optimize resources.

Lee Horner President, Telehealth Bio:

Lee is charged with leading the overall strategic direction of the Stratus Video Telehealth Division. Lee is responsible for driving revenue by generating new business and leveraging relationships with existing clients. As a healthcare technology thought leader, Lee brings over 25 years of enterprise operating experience and has a proven track record as a key executive leader of sales, marketing and professional services for healthcare technology companies. Prior to joining Stratus in April of 2016, Lee served as President of Care Cloud, where he was responsible for overseeing and driving significant top and bottom line growth while focusing on technology excellence and client satisfaction. A Sarasota native, Lee is an avid boater, fisherman and golfer. He enjoys spending time on the water and attending Tampa Bay Lightning games.

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