Telehealth – Tackling The Rural-Urban Divide

Telehealth and The Rural-Urban Divide

Is telehealth a legitimate mental health choice for the underserved in rural areas, or is it a poor choice born of necessity?  While this seismic shift in the healthcare industry is still being argued by the number crunchers, the professionals at Three Oaks Counseling are all in!

Telehealth, also referred to as video-health or virtual-health, is usually defined as accessing health care systems remotely and has become a promising prospect for the future of mental health.

Three Oaks Counseling professionals vote a resounding yes to telehealth!  They’re seeing people that have never had access to mental health before.  Using the exciting new medium to help neighbors that we didn’t even know existed before the pandemic.

Shining a Light on Rural America

Around 57 million Americans, or one in five Americans, live in rural communities. Healthcare disparities serve as one of the clearest examples of a division in resources for those underserved. Rising costs and proximity to proper healthcare were illuminated as we watched the recent pandemic roll from state to state.

When compared to those living in urban areas, rural Americans display many of the impacts of the health care gap, exhibiting higher rates of depression and suicide, all while being less likely to access mental health services. These rates are less surprising when you realize there is one psychiatrist for every 30,000 rural Americans.

Like all forms of medical resources, mental health care services are harder to come by for those living in remote, or economically challenged areas. Telehealth has become a possible answer to the messy problems posed by the rural-urban divide.

Increasingly, organizations are investing in telehealth and teletherapy. Firms like Three Oaks Counseling provide robust services, like medication management and counseling, all with remote options.

To best understand the possible impact of telehealth and its wide adoption, investment, and application across the United States, it’s important to understand some of the issues that are magnified in rural areas.

Substance Abuse:  Broad societal impacts on mental health, like the opioid epidemic, have left rural communities in desperate need of counseling and aid, while investment in their healthcare systems has lagged behind.

Facilities:  Hospitals, for instance, have been left with little support, resulting in closures across the nation. Since 2005, 181 rural hospitals nationwide have closed their doors. Texas ranks first, accounting for 24 of those closures. Clearly, rural Texans have been left without the care they need. These breaks in accessibility do not happen in a vacuum and often have sweeping ramifications on every aspect of a communities’ health, including mental health.

Access: People living in rural communities will likely need to travel much further, often across rugged terrain, to access mental health services. That, in addition to other barriers, like cost, attitude to mental health service, etc., keep rural residents away from resources.

Availability: To best understand the availability issue you can refer to the information presented earlier, that there is one psychiatrist for every 30,000 rural Americans. This results in few qualified health care professionals that are available for residents outside of urban centers.

Affordability: Cost impacts many levels of healthcare services, this is no different, leaving those unable to afford care without it.

Acceptability: Stigma contributes to many difficulties in the mental health world. Rural residents are less likely to trust what a mental health service can provide, and find themselves often opting to go without.

Simply put, rural America has been practically set up for failure in mental well-being for a long time.

Telehealth is Expanding Good Mental Health

The question has been practically answered. Telehealth is a legitimate mental health choice for the underserved in rural areas, or anyone looking to find more comfort and ease in your therapy journey.

Some of the main excuses used by those who are not currently attending therapy, even though they feel they may need it, are solved by telehealth. Lines like, “I don’t have the time” “It’s too expensive” “No provider is close” or “I never feel comfortable” are all addressed by teletherapy and the services it provides.

Using teletherapy to address those excuses has caused an influx of individuals seeking therapy like never before. In the winter of 2021, a quarter of U.S adults received mental healthcare. That’s over a 19% increase from the prior winter. It’s also no surprise that a good portion of those who received mental healthcare were receiving it for the first time, all while remote.

The broader ability to access healthcare through the internet tackles problems like accessibility and availability of professionals. While remote access and lack of a need to travel can help with affordability.

Telehealth also has a promising ability to address the underlying stigma attached to seeking mental healthcare. When participating in virtual counseling individuals may be more comfortable at being vulnerable when they’re in their own homes.

Addressing cost issues for individuals has also made an impact on rural healthcare facilities.  Telehealth allows medical facilities to streamline programs and cut some general costs. Evident in the closures of rural hospitals, we know that finding ways to make any process more affordable gives hospitals a much stronger chance at staying open for the communities they serve.

Accessibility to a broader range of mental healthcare specialists has opened the door for specialized treatment.   For example, many rural areas do not have counselors in, or near their town that specialize in niche mental health issues like eating disorders or bipolar disorder.  A broader pool of professionals offers patients more choices and more control over their mental health treatment.

Furthermore, this is a well-charted course. The COVID-19 Pandemic demanded medical agencies to find ways to limit the number of people coming and going. Check-ups, viewings of lab results, monitoring, etc. are all ways patients and doctors have embraced this relatively new technology. This has created a great foundation for a substantive healthcare experience through telehealth.

The CDC reported that on average 30.2% of weekly health center visits between June 26 and November 6, 2020, took place through telehealth.

This modern automation was quickly adopted by mental health providers.  The impact continues to yield a watershed of unintended benefits for the underserved. A majority of patients polled after utilizing telehealth reported an increase in convenience and comfort, with over a third of those polled reporting an intention to continue the use of telehealth, even after the COVID pandemic.

Existing Gaps and Barriers

Like any imbalance, telehealth’s implementation has been measured in its response to underserved populations. 55.1% of urban facilities and 29.9% of rural facilities are capable of providing telehealth services, with more than 30% of visits utilizing telehealth. Counselors and psychiatrists continue to improve the systems and fine-tune their virtual technology.

It is vital that healthcare providers in urban areas create telehealth programs that can serve all communities, not just those that are in close proximity to an urban center. Mental Health care organizations are creating robust teams of professionals that are practiced at video communication.  Recruitment of counselors outside of the physical space is expanding to serve the ever-increasing needs of surrounding communities.

Additionally, having equipped systems that can truly create and facilitate the clinician-patient relationship, not just create the appearance, is necessary. True telehealth requires investment in the technology and trained professionals who understand how to best use the tools at their disposal.

Lack of internet is the elephant in the room regarding telehealth. With some reports indicating a 4th of households without internet access, telehealth has a real hill to climb. Fortunately, in 2021 congress approved the bill to make high-speed broadband internet service accessible and affordable to all Americans. At Three Oaks Counseling, our technology teams are following this progress very closely.  As new areas open, we are looking forward to connecting with individuals and families in need.

How to Get Started with Telehealth Treatment

Start by selecting one of our Three Oaks Counseling Licensed Telehealth Professionals.

Be sure to also check out the many specialties Three Oaks is qualified to help with.

For patients interested in a hybrid experience of telehealth and in-person counseling, please choose from one of our three offices.  We have centers in Dripping Springs, Georgetown, and West Lake Hills.

Three Oaks Counseling Telehealth Future

We are proactively expanding our staff and technology to better serve populations historically underserved by traditional healthcare systems.

We have made significant investments in equipment, training, and procedure in an effort to stand out from the crowd.

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