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Health tech's tide doesn't lift all boats, report confirms

Erin Brodwin
May 17, 2022
Reproduced from Rock Health; Chart: Axios Visuals

Long portrayed as a kind of easy button for health care, digital health tools are still failing to reach many of the 57 million U.S. residents in rural areas, a new Rock Health report finds.

Driving the news: Virtual care companies looking to serve rural ZIP codes recognize they face a Sisyphean task, as Axios has previously reported. Why?

  • Most rural residents have little to no broadband access, and there are no state or federal policies that mandate it.
  • Providers must contend with unclear reimbursement and licensing requirements.

Flashback: The Biden administration last summer announced $19 million in grants for rural telehealth programs that will go toward helping local clinics overhaul their tech stack, train more providers in telemedicine, and help health systems better reach patients in rural areas.

Details: Compared with people in suburban and urban areas, respondents in rural areas reported lower rates of ...

  • Live video use for telehealth.
  • Ownership of wearable tools such as rings and fitness bands.
  • Digital tracking of health metrics such as activity, weight, blood pressure and mood.

Between the lines: Trust influences these disparities.

  • Rural respondents were more likely to trust health info provided by a clinician, and a greater percentage of rural residents said they trust health data from a doctor than from a digital health tool.

By the numbers: While 20% of U.S. residents live in rural areas, only 11% of clinicians do.

State of play: Despite the challenges, some telehealth companies and hybrid care startups are crafting creative solutions to serve rural areas.

  • New York-based telemedicine giant Teladoc partnered with a health system and school district to kickstart a school-based telehealth program on laptops at school nursing offices.
  • Oakland-based medical device company Eko works with rural providers to equip nurses and medical assistants with AI-powered stethoscopes that let non-specialist caregivers video conference with specialist providers while they examine patients.
  • San Francisco-based Homeward Health built a virtual care platform that uses cellular networks instead of broadband. It also dispatches in-person mobile care teams to people's homes.

What they're saying: Rural health care providers play a critical role in establishing and maintaining trust among patients, but there are not nearly enough of them.

  • "Rural clinicians are linchpins of community health, though their numbers are historically limited," Rock Health researchers Jasmine DeSilva, Gabrielle Dell'Aquilo and Adriana Krasniansky write.
  • “The fee-for-service model can’t stay alive in rural (markets). There are not enough specialists," Homeward CEO Jennifer Schneider previously told Axios.

This is part of a series of data breakouts based on Rock Health's latest report.

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