- Telehealth programs rely on strong IT infrastructure connectivity to support rural healthcare programs. Rural healthcare network connections begin at the provider organization, and the network is built from within to support remote users.
Many patients using telehealth programs live in remote areas and suffer from terminal or chronic illnesses that require them to visit their doctor often. These conditions make it difficult for a patient to travel to their primary care doctor or specialist to seek care.
Telemedicine allows them to check in with their healthcare provider remotely over the internet, so they can consult about their health from their home or a facility closer to their home.
These communications between remote patients and clinicians within a provider organization depend on a network of signals that needs to securely and efficiently communicate data from the patient to the clinician at the provider organization.
Many remote patients live in rural areas where major internet service providers don’t have strong connections. This can cause inconsistent information exchange and dropped signals, leaving patients with incomplete appointments and unable to provide their clinician with their complete information.
Video conferencing is also a major challenge for telehealth. Healthcare video conferencing can’t tolerate poor quality, yet patients often don’t have the best network connection in their home to support a high-quality video chat.
Patient internet connections are also inconsistent. Many Americans have internet that is not fast enough to support a high-quality video chat. In rural communities, service providers often have customers pay for internet by the gigabyte, which can result in high charges for video conferencing. This can make using patient internet connections impractical for telehealth purposes.
According to the ONC, telehealth programs require:
- Access to broadband internet: Sufficient bandwidth is needed to transmit audio and video data. Organizations in rural areas may have difficulty connecting to or obtaining affordable and reliable broadband service.
- Imaging technology or peripherals: These devices are the backbone of telehealth and allow healthcare organizations to see and hear patients even when they are miles apart. Digital stethoscopes, for instance, can transmit heart and lung sounds to remote providers.
- Access to technical support staff: Technical support staff members can help answer questions about telehealth programs.
- Staff training: Staff needs to be trained to use telehealth technology, which may take time. Organizations should consider whether workflow changes may be required and train accordingly.
By meeting these requirements, organizations can develop a strong telehealth program that will successfully support remote patients.
Providing access to broadband internet is the first challenge providers need to solve before deploying a telehealth program. The provider organization is responsible for providing the reliable connection to patients no matter where the patient is located.
Organizations must compensate for lack of coverage and set up telemedicine programs that can take advantage of whichever signal is the strongest and most reliable in the area.
This may require organizations to have several contracts with different cellular or wireless providers in different areas, which can be especially complex for larger healthcare organizations that treat patients across the country.
Consulting with broadband service providers and medical Internet of Things (IoT) device manufacturers is key to understanding what signals are strongest in what areas and which medical devices can adapt to changing signals.
Providing patients with the right tools to communicate and send vital signs is also needed. Organizations need to make sure that they provide patients with functional equipment and a way to communicate with a support team if a device is malfunctioning or not working up to capacity.
Additional staff for patient support as well as clinician training is also required. This needs to be figured into the project budget. Deploying telehealth devices and programs is ineffective if staff can’t quickly use the tools to consult with and treat patients.
Telehealth programs need to be reliable, so patients can receive the same level of care remotely as they would if they were physically in their provider’s office. Building a secure and solid network infrastructure is the key for smooth and successful communication between patients and clinicians.