USDA Awards $6 Million For Rural Telehealth

Feds award grants for telehealth projects in the Mississippi Delta region as part of a program to help rural facilities adopt health IT.
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Rural areas in six states will get $6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help finance 10 telehealth projects. The projects will deliver health and education services to rural areas currently lacking adequate healthcare in the Delta region.

Eligible healthcare organizations and institutions of research and higher education will get those grants under the Rural Development's Delta Health Care Services Grant Program. The funds will address unmet health needs in the Delta region, which comprises the 252 counties and parishes within the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee that are served by the Delta Regional Authority.

"Today's funding can help improve the health of rural residents who live in the south central portion of the country," Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a statement. "These projects can provide care to patients currently receiving no care at all and hopefully reduce the incidence of stroke, mental illness, and other health disorders in rural regions."

The USDA's decision comes on the heels of other announcements by the federal government that will boost health IT implementation in rural areas. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently allocated $12 million to rural health networks across the nation for the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs).

[ For more background on e-prescribing tools, see 6 E-Prescribing Vendors To Watch. ]

Similarly the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently selected American Well and SweetSpot Diabetes Care, to launch two separate projects through its industry innovation competition known as VAi2. The two initiatives will provide telehealth services to veterans, many of whom live in remote areas of the country.

"The USDA's announcement signals a widespread consensus at various government agencies that telehealth is a critical tool to help meet their mandates," Irene Berlinsky, IDC's senior research analyst covering Multiplay Services, told InformationWeek Healthcare. "Targeting both telemedicine and EHRs is needed: Telemedicine can solve the problem of access to care, but EHRs are needed to make that care efficient--especially in a setting where doctors are scarce and overworked."

Berlinsky also noted that the USDA's grants show a nuanced understanding of the challenges facing rural providers. "Many of the grants tackle the critical education piece to produce the trained local workforce critical to make telehealth sustainable. After all, what good is a mobile telepresence unit if no one knows how to operate it?" Berlinsky said. "Beyond the immediate benefits of better access to care and far-away specialists, it is this strategy that can become the "gift that keeps on giving"--telehealth can build a technology-savvy local workforce, create and attract high-paying jobs, and raise the standard of living--all while building healthier communities."

In Mississippi, Delta Health Alliance received a $699,142 grant to finance the Delta Electronic Intensive Care Unit (eICU) Network. The network will provide a secure interlinked eICU system between five hospitals in the most underserved and impoverished rural counties of the Mississippi Delta. The telemedicine project will connect the rural hospitals with the state-of-the-art critical care center at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

City of Mound Bayou, also in Mississippi, will receive $2,993,954 to finance the Taborian Urgent Care Center of Mound Bayou, the area's first urgent care center. Currently, there are no urgent care centers within an 80-mile radius of Mound Bayou. The nearest hospital is approximately 9 miles from the city. The Taborian Urgent Care Center will offer residents expanded healthcare services with extended hours and can provide distance learning in collaboration with Mississippi Valley State University. The center will also offer on-site courses in collaboration with Coahoma County Community College.

In Louisiana, Building Healthy Communities will receive $364,443 to fund the Louisiana Nursing Home Telehealth Project, which supports specialty healthcare consultation including cardiology, pulmonology, nephrology, oncology, and wound care at five rural nursing homes in the Louisiana Delta. Specialists will be able to examine patients in another city without them having to leave their nursing facilities. The five nursing homes associated with the project have a large Medicaid population and face significant challenges in accessing affordable, timely, and quality healthcare services.

Franklin Parish Hospital, Service District No.1 was awarded a grant of $62,870 to finance a telemental health program for residents of Franklin and Tensas Parishes, two of the most impoverished parishes in the Mississippi Delta region of Northeast Louisiana. The area ranks higher than the state and national averages for the number of mentally ill individuals. This telemental health program will address the problem of shortages and increasing mental health patient load through video conference-enabled psychiatric counseling, pre-hospitalization assessment, post-hospital follow up care, outpatient visits, and medication management.

Ochsner Clinic Foundation will receive $270,254 to fund the Acute Stroke System for Emergent Regional Telemedicine (ASSERT) program that supports eight rural hospitals in Central Louisiana to develop healthcare services, health education programs, and professional training programs related to stroke care. The telemedicine project will provide the hospitals with access to a stroke specialist, reduce decision time for treatments, increase the use of interventions shown to improve outcomes following strokes, improve overall care of stroke patients, and reduce transfer rates of patients out of the rural hospitals. The proposed hospitals are small rural hospitals without specialty stroke coverage on staff to provide acute stroke care; they're located in a region with high risk and mortality for stroke care.

Arkansas State University, Mountain Home, will receive $384,742 to finance improved education and training in two state schools' accredited two-year Respiratory Therapy (RT) programs by providing equipment needed to add certification in the Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP). The rural Delta Region of north central Arkansas has a high need for neonatal respiratory care due to high rates of teen pregnancies and reliance on emergency health services.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will receive $162,002 to fund equipment and support for the Delta Telecommunications Centers (DTC) project to address the long-term care and unmet health needs in the Arkansas Delta Region. Funds will be used to provide computer labs with Internet access for six nursing home facilities that provide educational opportunities for students enrolled in college-based registered nursing programs. The DTC will also establish three telehealth centers to enable nursing home medical staff to consult with distant medical directors and specialists associated with the Arkansas Aging Initiative and the Reynolds Institute on Aging.

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