Telehealth services can have a significant impact on Native American and Alaska Native communities.
These underserved populations can benefit from cost and resource advantages that come with telehealth technology.
According to Howard Hays, acting chief information officer for the Indian Health Service (IHS), developing policies that will eliminate barriers to the adoption of telehealth technology, such as expanding broadband services and providing resources to help implement the technology, will enable these communities to access healthcare in a cost effective and efficient way.
Hays recently testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs regarding this matter.
“The distribution of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations and our healthcare facilities over some of the most beautiful but isolated and underserved parts of the country increases the challenges of healthcare delivery, especially where specialty care and consultation are concerned. This is where the telehealth services can have their greatest impact.”
Currently, telehealth programs are already making an impact on communities in Alaska. The Alaska Federal Health Care Access Network (AFHCAN) program provides telehealth services to more than 300 Alaska villages and federal sites.
“More than 106,000 telehealth cases have been created in AFHCAN over the last decade, and through the use of store and forward technology, AFHCAN has reduced waiting times for specialty care and dramatically reduced patient’s travel costs.”
While these results are promising, the technology can further be utilized.
“Hays also pointed to the IHS Joslin Vision Network (JVN) tele-ophthalmology program, which serves 78 sites in 22 states. More than 50,000 patient examinations have been conducted through the JVN program, including 10,000 patients who received their first eye exams last year. Through Internet networks, JVN sends retinal photographs to a central reading center where specialists access the pictures; that enables them to diagnose early diabetic retinopathy and recommend interventions to reduce the risk of blindness.”
Implementation of these programs is where things get tricky. In areas such as Alaska, the infrastructure necessary to support telehealth is not fully in place.
“Few of these services are available system-wide and substantial variation exists across Indian Health regarding the availability of telehealth tools and the infrastructure to support using them. Network infrastructure in many locations is insufficient and requires upgrading, operational capacity for expanded implementation of training and technical support is often sub-optimal, and many programs lack the clinical and support staff to coordinate and perform the services. Finally, reimbursement policies for telehealth services lag behind the available technologies [and impedes] Indian Health facilities to promote adoption and change.”
Furthermore, the article asserts that when telehealth programs are not adopted, it has a negative impact on overall jobs, limits the potential to raise the quality of healthcare, and makes the delivery of care more expensive.
” ‘Economic development is linked to so many elements of healthcare: cost, availability, and quality. Telemedicine addresses all three of these points. With the spiraling costs of healthcare and the growing number of elderly and those with chronic conditions, telemedicine is an absolute requirement in helping to solve this crisis,’ said Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.”