Banking on telehealth to reach rural patients, University of Rochester Medical Center rolls out innovative virtual care pilot

Healthcare providers talk about meeting patients where they are. One upstate New York health system is taking a novel approach to this idea to reach patients in rural communities.

The University of Rochester Medical Center is teaming up with local banking group Five Star Bank, a subsidiary of Nasdaq-traded Financial Institutions Inc. to deploy telehealth stations at local bank branches.

The pilot is currently rolling out at three locations in rural parts of New York state.

Banks in rural towns are woven into the fabric of their communities and serve as vital facilities for local small businesses. Banks offer the ideal physical location to bridge the geographic divide between patients and providers, offering a vital touchpoint to reach an underserved population, according to URMC executives.

They are also a more plausible option for potentially larger-scale telehealth programs, explained Michael Hasselberg, Ph.D., URMC chief digital health officer.

“The way banks are set up, in regional branches, this could allow it to be scaled,” he told Fierce Healthcare. Alternative institutions, such as barbershops or libraries, would have to be dealt with on an individual basis, making banks a more appealing option, he added.

Banks, too, like healthcare provision, are undergoing their own digital transformation, and a telehealth collaboration also could drive increased foot traffic for them, Hasselberg said.

The statistics speak for themselves in terms of some of the difficulties patients in rural communities face in accessing high-quality healthcare.

Outside of the city of Rochester, 75% of the system’s patients live 10 miles or more from their nearest health facility, said Hasselberg. By contrast, 50% of the patient population lives within three miles of their local bank branch.

Rural Americans face numerous health disparities compared with their urban counterparts. More than 46 million Americans live in rural communities, and individuals in these regions are more likely to experience significant health disparities including an increased risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease than those living in urban areas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Telehealth doesn’t do so well within people’s homes in such communities, mainly because many people cannot afford to set up internet where they live, Hasselberg explained.

URMC is targeting three rural communities with limited healthcare providers and where many residents lack broadband home internet.

What URMC also discovered during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was that Medicaid patients did well with telehealth services when they could access them through audio-only plans on their phones. When the reimbursement for such services declined or disappeared, URMC had to come up with other options.

“It’s not a broadband problem in (rural) New York, it’s a poverty problem,” Hasselberg said. “Our capability to bring virtual care to patients went mainstream when needs arose during the pandemic. This pilot is the next evolution, bringing telemedicine to those who may lack access to technology at home.”

Some services, such as blood pressure check stations, have been available at the three pilot locations for several weeks now. Telehealth services that enable individuals to speak with a primary care provider have only recently come online. Such services are unscheduled with a typical wait time of less than seven minutes.

As well as Five Star Bank, the pilot project involves consumer engagement company Higi, patient platform DexCare and Verizon Business.

Higi's telehealth-enabled smart health stations, which measure key health indicators including risk for high blood pressure, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke, are installed in private, enclosed spaces in three Five Star Bank branches. The health stations allow users to connect with UR Medicine providers through virtual appointments facilitated by DexCare’s virtual on-demand platform.

URMC is eager to see the results of the telehealth initiative. 

“Maybe this could be a nothing burger but we are very excited as this could be transformative,” Hasselberg said. “Other health systems have reached out to see if they could replicate this, too.”

He notes that it's the first time a health system and a financial institution have partnered to provide telemedicine-equipped health stations to rural communities. 

Banks also have the advantage of not being so reliant on every available space being filled up with products to sell, unlike retail providers. This will allow for more private spaces for people getting such telehealth services, Hasselberg said.

“Local banks and health care providers are trusted institutions—bringing them together to reach more people and to deliver more care is essential to creating healthier communities,” Derek Streat, DexCare CEO, said in a statement. “A digital visit is a building block for patients to regain control of their wellness, and an opportunity for health systems to expand their footprint to deliver more care and services.”  

The pilot received funding from the New York State Health Foundation, the American Heart Association and the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.

URMC's initiative comes as many traditional retailers are opening up health centers in their stores to reach underserved patients. Walmart is building out health centers located next door to a Walmart Supercenter. The retailer is expanding into more states and says it will have 75 health locations by the end of 2024.

Dollar General also is testing out mobile clinics in three Tennessee locations for preventive care, urgent care and chronic condition management services in partnership with DocGo On-Demand. 

Primary care company Forward recently rolled out self-serve CarePods that use artificial intelligence to screen and diagnose health conditions. The new CarePods are designed like kiosks that automate medical checkups and are being deployed in malls, gyms and offices.