Rod's Blog: Serving rural communities through technology

Besides higher education, health care is one of the last bastions to fully enter the digital age. There are so many ways we can use technology to improve the quality of care and the health of our communities while also making services more convenient, affordable and accessible for everyone. 

Digital health seems to be the hottest new trend in the technology space, with countless entrepreneurs and investors vying to become the “Uber” of health care. This is good news, in many respects, because we need expertise from outside our sector to partner with us to develop creative solutions.

But the reality is, the delivery of health care is incredibly intricate and complex, especially when it comes to serving vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations.  For example, people who live in rural, remote communities are often on my mind. Access to care for these individuals is a serious gap in the U.S. health care system.
 
We can use – and are using – technology, such as telehealth, to examine and consult with patients and local providers remotely. But it’s not that simple everywhere. We have to walk before we can run. Many of these very rural communities lack the basic infrastructure needed to deliver digital solutions.

Broadband connection – something we take for granted in urban environments – is not always reliable or even available in remote areas. With the shortage of health care IT professionals, it’s also hard for some of these communities to recruit and retain the talent they need to use and maintain health care technology. Additionally, the cost of software, such as electronic medical records, can be prohibitive for many rural hospitals and clinics.

So while Providence St. Joseph Health is pursuing a number of innovative apps and other digital solutions, I think I’m most proud of the work we are doing behind the scenes, quietly, to support critical access hospitals and providers in rural communities. 

Our Community Connect program is committed to sharing our electronic health record system with independent community hospitals and clinics that may not be able to afford or implement a system on their own. The program also deploys IT staff to communities that are unable to recruit or retain talent. This level of support helps to ensure they have on-site expertise to maintain and troubleshoot technology. In addition, we are sharing and implementing other software with these communities to help meet their needs. 

In total, we have provisioned a wide-range of IT services and software to 50 independent community hospitals and practices, creating greater access and connection for 750,000 patients and 1,100 providers across 171 sites. Through this program, we are helping to improve access to care for patients and providers in remote parts of states like Alaska and Montana, where there is tremendous need.

Technology has the potential to do so much to improve health care. I’m proud of our team at Providence St. Joseph Health for the work we’re doing to democratize it and offer the basic services needed to make sure it’s available to everyone, including people in hard to reach parts of the seven states we serve.

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