One of the cornerstones of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was improving access to health care in areas that are traditionally underserved. By making it easier for people in remote, rural or impoverished areas to find and see doctors for care, whether itâ€™s an annual checkup or a major health event like a heart attack, mortality rates and the costs for chronic conditions â€” which account for about 75 percent of all health care expenses â€” both decline.
Of course, there are some barriers to expanding access to rural areas. Finding qualified providers to work in these areas is only one of the issues; other problems, including extreme distances, lack of transportation options and low incomes also make it difficult for patients to see their doctors on a regular basis. While great strides have been made toward improving access, there is still a long way to go.
Enter technology. Medical professionals have collaborated with technological experts to develop new online services and applications that make it easier and more efficient for patients to access the care they need. Several startups that are revolutionizing the way that rural patients get care have hit the scene in recent years.
Launched in 2010, iCouch provides online mental health services to people all over the world. It began when the founder was trying to help a Mexican friend find a Spanish-speaking therapist in China. She knew plenty of qualified individuals in her native Mexico, and was finally able to connect her friend to a therapist via Skype. Realizing that not everyone has access to qualified mental health counselors â€” thanks to geography, transportation limits or other issues â€” founder Jessica Rios developed iCouch, which connects people in need of counseling with a qualified, licensed therapist, who may or may not be locally based.
This allows people to receive the services they need from the best person, even if they live in a remote, rural area. All sessions are booked, conducted and paid for online (in some cases, patients can even be reimbursed for iCouch services by insurance) and comply with all ethical and HIPPA guidelines. In the wake of several high profile news stories involving mental health, and the need for expanded services, iCouch fills a major gap for rural America.
Founded in 2008 by two emergency room physicians, iTriage connects patients with providers in their area and allows them to take more control of their health and their medical care. The program is specifically designed to meet the needs of rural patients, and includes both a website and a smartphone application. Members can use the application to store their medical information, receive medication refill reminders, look up symptoms and treatments, find providers and make appointments.
When patients make appointments with participating providers, they can even fill out paperwork in advance and send a notification that they are on their way to the office, so staff can prepare accordingly. For rural patients who may not have the opportunity to see their doctors on a regular basis, or who may not know where to go for care, iTriage provides a valuable service.** **
Research shows that the average patient forgets about 80 percent of the information that their doctors provide during the typical office visit. When a patient only sees his or her doctor a few times a year â€” or even less, like some rural patients â€” that memory lapse could prove harmful, or at least make it far more difficult to manage a chronic condition.
WeIVu is setting out to use technology to make it easier for patients to comply with doctor instructions. With the technology, doctors can create â€œon-demandâ€ videos of their conversations with patients in any care setting, whether a routine appointment or at the hospital bedside. Later patients can access these instructions and conversations, complete with visual aids and additional information using the patientâ€™s own chart, medical images and test results via a secure web platform. The developers expect that the app will revolutionize patient education and compliance, especially in rural areas.
TelePharm understands life in rural America â€” after all, the digital health care firm is based in Iowa. TelePharm is designed to help rural residents access pharmacists from wherever they happen to be. In some areas, where the nearest pharmacy may be 20 miles or more away, having the ability to securely connect online with a pharmacist for counseling and other services saves time and money, and could prevent serious health complications or drug interactions.
These four startups are just a few of the new companies that are trying to make it easier for rural patients to get the care they need. As technology improves â€” and more people access smartphones and Internet services â€” weâ€™re bound to see even more tech startups getting into the health care realm.