It is estimated that one in four Minnesotans will have reached the age of 65 or greater by the year 2030. Of this population, the higher density of senior citizens are expected to be generally concentrated in less urban areas. This shift stands to test already stretched rural healthcare providers due to projected shortages of specialty care physicians and a dispersed (and often economically vulnerable) client base faced with increasing insurance costs. 


While there is no one answer that will solve every problem facing rural care givers, one puzzle piece that stands to make a measurable impact is the emergence of connected health solutions. With catchy names like Cybermedicine or eHealth, the concept involves using wearable medical devices to transmit patient information over cellular or internet connections to patient care teams and doctors. 


In a highly successful pilot program undertaken by the University of Mississippi Medical Center, blood glucose monitors were deployed along with tablet computers to remotely monitor diabetes patients where travel to medical facilities was difficult. The information gathered and best practices developed were shown to improve outcomes for several hundred participants through the real-time feedback and video physician consultations made possible by the technology. While these technologies show great potential to improve the quality of care, they also hint at possible cost savings associated with delivering necessary services. This could benefit rural healthcare providers where the more profitable commercial and managed care revenues are struggling to offset growing Medicare losses prevalent in aging communities.

 

Given the success of the UMMC program, efforts are already underway to modify the technology and expand the program to patients suffering from other chronic conditions requiring intensive management such as obstructive pulmonary and kidney diseases. 


Seminal shifts in any industry require many moving parts to come into alignment. This is also true with connected health. The device technology already exists with communicating medical devices, but access to cellular and broadband communications can be spotty in very rural areas. Designed to address this gap, the FCC's Rural Health Care Program provides grants for facilities in rural areas to obtain broadband access required to deliver healthcare services. Along with other rural broadband investments and initiatives, areas not served by broadband are expected to be dramatically reduced in coming years.


Another identified challenge includes a potential shortage of skilled rural workers to support connected health technology. The talent needed to deploy and maintain such systems are often lured to larger metropolitan areas for higher paying jobs. But even this does not represent a terminal diagnosis for connected health. With cloud-based software changing the landscape of other industries, it stands to reason that software vendors will find a lucrative market aggregating the hosting and managing of such platforms for smaller healthcare providers not typically staffed or funded for such undertakings.   


The parts are all there. Let's hope the timing of their convergence isn't too late for some already struggling independent rural
healthcare providers.  

Jamie Coffel has over 20 years' experience in electric utility and automation businesses. He consults for several near start-up companies and has led the development of some of the utility industry's best selling energy management products.  


A patent-pending technology inventor and former utility commission vice-president and board member, Jamie has also been active in the development of several industry initiatives such as the Society of Automobile Engineers' Vehicle-to-Grid standards and the Electric Power Research Institute's  project that led to the development of the ANSI/CTA-2045 Modular Communications Interface for Energy Management.