Medical professional talking to patient through a computer

COVID-19 Accelerates Telehealth Expansion at Rural Health Centers

Prior to COVID-19, George Olson and his team at Sterling Area Health Center knew they wanted to expand access to telehealth – web-based care offered virtually through laptops, phones and tablets –  but they just hadn’t found a way to make it a sustainable offering for patients they serve in northwest  Michigan’s Arenac, Iosco and Ogemaw counties.

“COVID changed that,” Olson, president and CEO of the center, explained. “This thing hits and then we were really looking at what solutions we could put in place.”

More flexibility in reimbursements for virtual care helped, as did $50,000 in grant funding under a rapid response telehealth initiative supported by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation. The grant is part of a larger, nearly $3M collaborative effort  with the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation and the Metro Health Foundation to help Michigan providers and safety net organizations rapidly expand telehealth services.

For Olson and other stewards of safety net clinics, shoestring budgets are a reality. “This grant and this funding opportunity came about and it was perfect timing,” he said.

Now, the center’s providers are conducting routine follow-up appointments, medication and chronic disease management virtually. They’ve even seen a few new patients this way and Olson believes “telehealth in some format is going to stay.”

The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation has invested in telehealth in the past, yet this moment is pivotal,” explained Audrey Harvey, executive director and CEO, BCBSM Foundation. “With Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Foundation support, these grantees are expanding access to care at a critical time.  Increasing access to care is essential for addressing disparities, like those we have seen with COVID-19.”

At Baldwin Family Health Center, virtual visits allow patients with minor ailments to stay home while still receiving care. Baldwin was also the recipient of $50,000 in grant funding to expand telehealth services. Prior to the pandemic, the center wasn’t offering virtual care and clinicians are now conducting about 30% of medical visits and 50% of behavioral health visits through their secure platform.

Travis Kroll, associate director, External & Internal Relations at the center, said virtual visits are proving to be a valuable way for the center to provide care. Many of the agency’s patients have chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension that can be monitored successfully through telehealth.

Baldwin’s network of clinics serves residents that geographically span five counties and 2,542 square miles. Under normal circumstances, the distance can make accessing care difficult. Olson said Sterling’s patients often face difficulty accessing transportation to get to their appointments and other issues often crop up including lack of childcare and unpredictable job schedules.

Both Kroll and Olson agree telehealth is particularly valuable for health centers serving a low-income, rural population. Offering routine follow-up care and assessments online solves some of these challenging access issues for their patients, although both concede that for some areas, lack of a reliable internet connection doesn’t make it viable for all.

“There are great opportunities here for this to be transformative in health care,” Olson said. “I think if we all do the right thing, it will show that this works, and this is one of many great tools we can use to make health care better.”

Sixty-one organizations received grants, including federally qualified health centers, behavioral health providers, human service agencies, PACE programs, Area Agencies on Aging, and other safety net providers.

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Photo credit: AJ_Watt

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