September 7, 2023

Telehealth services bridge gap for specialist access in rural communities

Editor's Note

Rural populations are challenged with access to consistent specialist care, with an average of just 11% of the volume of specialists per 100,000 residents compared to urban areas, according to the National Rural Health Associations. In an effort to combat the shortage of specialists, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital in Alaska has partnered with Texas-based Troy Medical, a telehealth company.

“We want to be in an environment where everybody can have access to health services when they need them, and that includes specialists” said Suzan Bast, service excellence manager at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

Troy Medical is providing virtual specialist services in hepatology, rheumatology, gastroenterology, neurology and dermatology. Founder Kara Hartl, MD, ophthalmologist, spent 15 years at Fairbanks and launched the company after having trouble finding care for a patient who became its namesake.

“We’re creating relationships and helping these patients navigate the healthcare system. The only thing we request of community hospitals is promotion,” said Hartl.

Troy Medical currently services rural areas of Texas and Alaska. Initially established in Austin, Texas, working with the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals to identify target partners, Hartl set up another site in Sulphur Springs, located about 80 miles east of Dallas, where patients can go for appointments with support from administrative personnel, and hospitals are involved in selecting which specialists are needed.

One of the biggest challenges facing telehealth is the lack of doctors or specialists in-state, such as in Alaska where there are not as many doctors as Texas. The licensure and regulations across state boards poses another challenge. In turn, Suzan Bast hopes that the platform attracts more providers to Fairbanks, Alaska, allowing doctors to move to a remote location of the country and still hold a strong patient base.

The Cecil G. Sheps center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cites 136 rural hospital closures between 2010 and 2021, and an additional 19 closures in 2020, underscoring the access issues for patients across the country.

The July issue of OR Manager featured, How rural hospital acquisitions are impacting surgical care access, which discusses strategies health systems are taking to address the “care desert” and provide expanded services to rural populations.


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