(This article has been updated with a correction.)
Aeon Strange, 9, sees psychiatrist Dr. Kyle John four times a year for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. Until recently, making the 200-mile round trip from his home in Rolla, Mo., to see John at the Mercy Health clinic in Springfield, Mo., meant his missing a day of school and one of his parents missing work.
So the Stranges decided to participate in Mercy's “telepsych” program, which allows Aeon to receive behavioral health exams with John through a video hookup at his pediatrician's office just a few minutes' drive from his school. “We really appreciated it,” said Aeon's mother, Robyn. “We no longer have to drive two hours there and two hours back.”
Chesterfield, Mo.-based Mercy Health began investing in advanced telehealth capabilities eight years ago and now operates programs in specialties ranging from stroke care to high-risk pregnancies, said Shannon Sock, executive vice president for organizational effectiveness. About two years ago, Mercy committed more than $500 million to invest in virtual-care technology, and another $50 million to build a virtual-care center near its headquarters. Nineteen of its 33 hospitals have less than 50 beds and are in rural regions of Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas. The investments allow the system to expand its patient base as well as its network of hospitals and referring physicians.
As systems like Mercy shift to alternative payment models rewarding them for keeping patients healthy, some are accelerating their investments in technology tools and other initiatives that increase access for rural patients. These include deploying clinicians in remote locations, adopting telehealth and using in-home monitoring capabilities. These efforts are particularly important for rural communities, where patients often live far from the closest full-service hospital.