Almost one-third of rural hospitals in the United States will have adopted a telemedicine program by the end of the year, a new study shows.
Of the 2,365 rural hospitals surveyed by Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates, 29% are using telemedicine or plan to be using it by the end of the year. The survey covers 95% of the nation's rural hospitals, which are those located outside of a metropolitan statistical area.
"Our survey shows telemedicine usage is very common," said Andrea Hassol, who co-authored the study. "We wanted to figure out what's out there as a starting point for more data collecting, and we started with hospitals because we figured they would be most likely to buy the technology."
Abt, a research firm, was hired by the federal Office of Rural Health Policy for the study, which looked at ways hospitals are connecting primary-care practitioners with specialist physicians.
While the definition of telemedicine varies widely, the study outlined telemedicine as using more than simply a telephone or facsimile machine. More than half of those surveyed were using teleradiology.
Typically, telemedicine is defined as a two-way audio and video communications network that gives rural hospitals and their physicians access to medical and technological resources via telephone lines or satellite link-ups.
"The most common technology is radiology, but a lot also are using very sophisticated communication through a computer and a modem," Hassol said.
Of the telemedicine programs that had been put together, 30% were created last year and another 30% were created between one and three years ago, the survey said.
The average rural hospital consults with a specialist physician via telemedicine at least 15 times a month, the survey indicated. Of the hospitals with telemedicine programs, 66% seek specialist consultations; 10% provide consultation to others; and the remaining 24% serve in both capacities, the survey said.
"Telemedicine promises to be an effective tool in addressing the issue of access," said Gary Gaumer, Abt's program vice president for health and co-author of the study.
A follow-up survey will be released in the next four to six weeks, giving a better idea of the specific uses of telemedicine and how it is being funded, Hassol said.