USDA report finds rural residents less likely to use telehealth services than urban counterparts

The agency noted that other factors including income and education level also impacted an individual's telehealth use.
By Laura Lovett
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Despite the hype around implementing telehealth in rural areas, a recent USDA report found that rural residents were actually less likely than their urban counterparts to partake in online health research, maintenance and monitoring services. The report describes the results of a telecommunications and eHealth questionnaire that was sent out to 50,000 households (accounting for roughly 130,000 individuals) alongside a population survey from 2015. 

The report — penned by Peter L. Stenberg, a regional economist at USDA — found that 17 percent of rural residents reported conducting online research compared to 20 percent of urban residents. Likewise, rural residents were less likely to participate in online health maintenance (7 percent) than rural peers (11 percent). 

Stenberg noted that while telehealth activities varied across demographics, in general telemedicine use increased with a higher household income. Education also played into Americans' telehealth use. For example, 29 percent of college-educated respondents said they participated in online research, whereas only 13 percent of responders with a high school degree used the service. 

Stenberg noted that a lack of internet access didn’t necessarily exclude people from teleheath services. 

“In-home broadband internet access, whether by choice or happenstance, may not have been a significant factor in 2015 for either rural or urban residents,” he wrote. “Many still conducted health activities although they had no Internet subscription. Health providers, however, continue to improve their offerings, so needs for high-quality household broadband service will likely increase if patients are to avail themselves of these new services, especially in rural and poor areas where lower quality broadband Internet service tends to be more common.”

Why it matters 

Telemedicine has often been offered as a solution for hard-to-reach demographics, particularly in rural areas where there are less providers. 

“Telehealth services are rapidly improving at an opportune moment for US rural communities, which face many challenges in accessing health care,” Stenberg wrote. “In all developed countries (the United States included), rural areas have faced barriers to health care access, including provider shortages, maldistribution of resources, quality problems, access limitations and inefficient use.”

While this report is centered around relatively old data and the landscape has almost certainly changed in the last three years, it could also give insights into citizens' health habits.

What's the trend

The government has shown an interest in providing more telemedicine opportunities to people living in rural areas. 

At the Connected Health Conference in October, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spoke about a number of initiatives the FCC is funding or spearheading to help bring broadband and telemedicine services to those rural communities. Many of these initiatives come via the Universal Service Fund, the mechanism by which the FCC subsidizes telecommunications networks.

In healthcare specifically, the FCC recently raised the spending cap on the rural healthcare program, an initiative launched in 1997 to help healthcare providers afford the connectivity they need to operate — including connectivity for telemedicine and remote monitoring.

To improve cancer care in rural communities, the FCC has partnered with the National Cancer Institute to create a program called L.A.U.N.C.H. (Linking & Amplifying User-Centered Networks through Connected Health)

On the record

“Resolving the challenges to providing rural health care may be vital to ensuring continued rural growth and prosperity. Rural telehealth, which has rapidly integrated with Internet technologies, may pose one solution,” Stenberg wrote. “Although telehealth remains in its infancy with relatively low rates of regular use, those rates will likely increase as service and technology continue to improve and people become aware of the improvements.”