Report: Telehealth’s economic impact could have broad reach in rural communities

Telemedicine consultation
Several challenges remain for rural telehealth programs, including access to reliable broadband internet services.

Telehealth could save hospitals in rural parts of the country an average of $81,000 annually. But that economic impact would likely spread throughout the community, cutting down on travel costs for patients and boosting revenues for other healthcare providers.

The estimates were published in a report (PDF) by NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, which used economic data from 24 rural hospitals in four states to calculate the potential costs savings of a telehealth program for community members and hospitals.

Although hospitals would likely see costs decline after reducing the number of full-time providers and utilizing specialists in urban areas, patients would see dramatic reductions in travel costs and lost wages. Community members would save an average of $24,000 each year in travel costs, and recoup nearly $17,000 in lost wages for patients traveling farther to receive specialty care.

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Other community providers—including labs and pharmacies—would potentially see hundreds of thousands of dollars remain in the community. Local businesses would see higher revenues for services like MRIs, bloodwork and CT scans, rather than seeing those expenditures absorbed by providers outside the community.

But, as the report notes, several challenges remain for rural telehealth programs, including access to reliable broadband internet services. Reimbursement challenges for telemedicine impact programs both large and small and the upfront costs to install telehealth technology may be cost-prohibitive for rural hospitals with smaller budgets.

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Project ECHO, perhaps the most notable national program aimed at providing telehealth services to remote areas of the country, got a legislative boost in December after a new law expanded the program to a wider region of communities.