USDA ramps up mobile, telehealth funding

From the mHealthNews archive
By Tom Sullivan

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is not all that widely recognized as a shaper of healthcare or related technologies, the agency has a far-reaching initiative to support rural patients — with a particular emphasis on veterans.

At March’s end, that project spread into Tennessee to fund electronic health record implementation as well as mobile and telehealth to rural providers across 10 counties wherein some 20,000 veterans are among the patient population.

“We want doctors and hospitals serving our poorest rural communities across Tennessee to be able to afford the technology upgrades they need to improve care for patients and rural veterans in their communities,” Jennifer Ride of the Tennessee Health IT Regional Extension Center (TnREC) said in a Health IT Buzz blog post.

The USDA is working with other federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, to not just lay the technological infrastructure often lacking in rural and so-called ultra rural areas but also to enable sharing of patient data among facilities. It's a key aspect to improving care for veterans who, Department of Veterans Affairs officials have said, get at least half of their care from private providers outside the VA. 

“Any USDA funding resources that can be targeted to assist rural doctor’s offices and hospitals to share health information with the VA would certainly assist rural communities in partnering to manage the health and health outcomes of the rural veteran population,” said Angie Allen, director of the Tennessee State Office of Rural Health, in the same blog. 

The initiative began in 2011 as part of a broader White House-level effort to bring better healthcare to Americans living in rural areas; the USDA and ONC have thus far funded health IT in Iowa and Mississippi.

Iowa’s Henry County Health Center, for instance, used the funding to build a new surgery center and incorporate Blue Button into its offerings so thqt veterans can either download their health data and send it to a provider or carry a printout with them.

“My admonition to rural hospitals out there is that it’s well worth your time to investigate all the options available to you,” Stewart said in an ONC USDA session at HIMSS14. “Fully investigate all the options that are available to you because there are more than you think.”