According to National Public Radio, “a growing number of Americans [are] turning to telehealth appointments with medical providers in the wake of widespread hospital closings in remote communities, and a shortage of local primary care doctors, specialists, and other providers.”
“Remote communities” is an all too relatable term when it comes to the South Central Region (i.e. Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The last US Census listed 41% Arkansas’ population living in rural counties, 51% of Mississippi’s population living in rural counties, and 50% of the same for Tennessee.
Half of the population in these states struggle to have access to adequate healthcare. This was much the same for a remote clinic in Cotton Plant, AR. A remote community with a population of 587 people. ARcare, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) whose unofficial mission statement is to serve “the least, the last and the lost,” had a part-time clinic in this community for years.
Lauren Fields, the Chief Coordinated Care Officer at ARcare, has seen this struggle first hand, but has also recently seen the drastic improvement in healthcare access through telemedicine. ARcare ventured into telehealth in July 2018 with medical nutrition therapy. According to Fields, “there were only two registered dieticians in ARcare at the time and there was a great need.” Because of the success with the tele-nutrition program, ARcare wanted to venture into primary care.
As mentioned previously, the FQHC at Cotton Plant was part-time because the APRN had to split her time between two different clinics, though there was a full time office assistant.
In January 2019, the telehealth program began and the APRN was able to see forty patients. In April 2019, she saw 113 patients via telemedicine. That number has slightly decreased during the hot summer months because of the large number of the ARcare patrons who have to walk to the clinic, something Fields calls, “the summer slowdown.” Because of telehealth capabilities, the clinic is now considered a full-time operation.
Telehealth has taken off. They now offer telehealth services in Cabot, Melbourne, Newport, Swifton, and pediatric telehealth in Augusta. “At times,” says Fields, “they’ve wired in nurse educators, diabetes educators, pharmacists, and dieticians.”
Everyone is on board. To Fields, that’s the key to success. “The biggest difference,” says Fields, “is having our staff be excited about it… that’s what makes it work.”
What’s next? ARcare administrators have met with schools to potentially implement school-based telehealth programs. If a school applies for a health center and is denied, they are allowed to establish their own telehealth programs.