In Mississippi, there are just 186 physicians for every 100,000 people. There, the physician shortage—the worst in the country—strikes people in rural areas especially hard, as they face hourslong trips to reach specialists and the state's single academic medical center, in Jackson.
But that facility, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, happens to be a leader—specifically, in telehealth. Its Center for Telehealth is connected to more than 200 locations across Mississippi, a state in which the population has the highest rates of diabetes, low birth-weights and death from heart disease. Which is to say: The need for access to healthcare is great.
“Your care and your treatment shouldn't be dictated by your ZIP code,” said Michael Adcock, executive director at the Center for Telehealth at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “We're not trying to take care of the patients here in Jackson,” he adds. “For patients, not having to leave their home community is a huge deal.”
The Center for Telehealth reaches far beyond a single institution. Of the center's sites, all but six are with organizations that aren't part of the medical center.
Indeed, telemedicine is expanding across the country, changing from something providers and patients consider cool to something they consider essential. Not only do the UMMC program and others like it increase access to care, but they also strengthen continuity of care.
SnapMD makes the virtual platform on which the visits are conducted, and providers document all visits done through UMMC's Center for Telehealth in the organization's Epic Systems Corp. electronic health record.
If a patient wants the information to go back to the primary-care physician, UMMC will pass it along. “We don't want things happening out there where a visit happens and your primary-care physician doesn't know about it,” Adcock said. What's more, that practice also allows telehealth providers to recommend local primary-care physicians—a key resource for healthier patients.
At UMMC, some providers only do telehealth visits, though most do both virtual and in-person visits. The site of care (“originating site”) and the providers (at the “distant site”) must fulfill certain requirements to receive payment from Medicare, while Medicaid coverage rules vary by state. Commercial reimbursement is spotty, and sometimes patients must pay in cash.
Providers, like patients, have been receptive to telemedicine at hospitals across the country. “In the beginning, we had providers who were a little tentative,” said Natasa Sokolovich, executive director of telemedicine at the UPMC health system. “But once they saw the positive outcomes and acceptance by their patients, that helped solidify it for them.”