NEARLY 60 million people—roughly one out of every five Americans—live in a rural area. These individuals face much higher barriers to health care than those in metropolitan areas.
In addition to distance and transportation issues, they face health care workforce shortages limiting care as well as privacy issues unique to rural America, causing those who need care the most to not seek it out.
In the little town of Montross, where I live, we have experienced the closing of doctor’s offices and folks having to travel long distances to seek health care.
Rural hospitals are becoming an endangered species. Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 2,000 rural hospitals are likely to close in the next two years. Clearly, rural residents have even fewer options for affordable, quality medical treatment in their communities.
The opportunity for remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology known as telemedicine would help bridge this gap.
Telemedicine will afford rural patients access to physicians quickly and easily. For example, they can spend 10 minutes video calling their doctor, who can provide a medication or help with non-life-threatening issues.
Two-thirds of adults are willing to consult with a doctor via video, but only 8 percent have tried it, according to a consumer survey by American Well, a major provider of telemedicine services. While the cost of delivering care through telemedicine is often less expensive than providing care in person, some studies have suggested that the ease of telemedicine will increase the overall use of health care services – essentially making it cost neutral.
But there is one major obstacle in the way of telemedicine changing the lives of millions of rural Americans – access to quality, high-speed internet. It is paradoxical that those who would benefit from telemedicine the most have the least access. This needs to change.
As a co-chair of both the Public Health Caucus and the Rural Broadband Caucus, I think we have a major opportunity to change our health care system for the better.
Currently almost 50 percent of rural Virginians lack access to high-speed internet and 29 percent don’t have any internet service at all. Red tape and regulations, cost of service, and varying geographic obstacles continue to be major hinderances to expanding broadband access in rural areas.
I believe that by addressing these issues and engaging federal/state agencies and other private stakeholders with localities, we can help bridge the digital divide.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working to bridge this divide through its Rural Health Care Program. This program provides funding to help rural health care providers obtain broadband and other communications services at discounted rates. These services are then used by health care providers to offer telemedicine services to those in their rural community.
The work the FCC is doing will go a long way, but in Congress we must pass legislation that gets at the heart of the issue of access of both telemedicine and high-speed internet. This is absolutely critical, since telemedicine cannot succeed in rural areas without broadband.
I am a proud supporter of Representatives Greg Harper’s and Doris Matsui’s Improving Access to Remote Behavioral Health Treatment Act, which would increase the access to medication-assisted treatment at community behavioral health clinics in underserved areas through telemedicine.
Another piece of legislation, the Rural Health Clinics Modernization Act, would expand the services offered by rural health clinics to improve access to care and close coverage gaps in underserved areas of the country.
This is an urgent, bipartisan issue that can’t wait any longer. President Trump recently laid out his plan for improving our health care system. One of the components was an emphasis on telehealth and telemedicine.
In this hyper-partisan environment, I know that this is an issue both sides can come together on for a real solution. Now is the time to act.
Rep. Rob Wittman represents Virginia’s First Congressional District.