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Most in rural areas 'comfortable' with telehealth during pandemic, study finds

People who live in rural areas found telehealth particularly useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research. Photo by Rawpixelcom/Shutterstock
People who live in rural areas found telehealth particularly useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research. Photo by Rawpixelcom/Shutterstock

Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Nearly 80% of people living in rural areas who relied on telehealth to continue medical consultations during the COVID-19 pandemic were comfortable connecting with providers remotely, a study published Thursday by JAMA Network Open found.

A similar percentage would use the approach, which involves conducting appointments by phone or using online video calling, again, even when the virus is no longer a threat, the data showed.

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People in rural areas who found telehealth useful tended to be those with "higher health literacy," meaning they were more knowledgeable about medical problems and their own conditions, researchers said.

Those people also had high-speed Internet access, which allowed them to use online platforms to connect with care providers, the researchers said.

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"COVID-19 has accelerated the expansion of telehealth, heralding an opportunity to integrate technology into clinical care delivery in new and purposeful ways," wrote the researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University.

"However, there are disparities among people in rural communities that limit opportunities to gain experience and comfort using technology for health information and services, including lower home broadband access, lower health literacy and less use of online health information compared with urban populations," they said.

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The findings are based on a survey of 252 people who live in rural counties in Virginia, 102 of whom reported using telehealth services between June 2020 and January of this year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the researchers said.

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Among those who used telehealth during the study period, 78% were comfortable with the approach and 79% would use it again, the data showed.

Sixty-eight percent of telehealth users described it as an "acceptable mode for healthcare delivery," the researchers said.

In addition to having high health literacy and high-speed Internet access, those who were satisfied with telehealth tended to be in "good overall health" and have private health insurance, as opposed to Medicare or Medicaid, the researchers said.

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Telehealth has become a viable alternative -- and, in some cases, a necessary one -- for the roughly 60 million people in the United States who live in rural areas, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2020, 20 local hospitals that served rural areas across the country closed, making last year a record one for rural hospital closures, the Sheps Center said.

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Nationally, 136 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, it reported.

"Implementation of telehealth will continue after the pandemic," the researchers wrote.

"Our work highlights key considerations for rural residents to ensure that existing technology barriers are not exacerbated," they said.

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