Virtual therapist consulting young man during online appointment on laptop at home. Telemedicine chat, telehealth meeting

The Virginia Telehealth Network: Building bridges to greater access to healthcare

Anyone who’s been on a Zoom meeting or two (or 200) over the past year and a half knows that there’s been a new normal when it comes to business communications. Gone for the most part are dial-in phone conferences, which already seem as retro as a fax machine or CD player. It’s a testament to just how quickly we can embrace new technologies, even if those technologies have actually been around for a while.

Such is the case with telemedicine. The nuts and bolts of being able to connect online with your physician or psychologist have been in place for at least the last quarter century, but it took a pandemic to speed broad acceptance of telehealth across practice areas – from primary care and dermatology to mental health services and dentistry. A recent survey sponsored by the Virginia Community Healthcare Association estimates that an astounding 95% of health centers in the country adopted some form of telemedicine in 2020. Among patients, another study found patient use of telehealth services in 2020 was up 3,000%.

In Virginia, the nonprofit organization charged with helping promote telehealth in the commonwealth was founded some 15 years ago, but recently the Virginia Telehealth Network is witnessing a boom among health care providers who are turning to telemedicine as a safe, convenient and efficient option for connecting with their patients.

“The acceleration in the adoption of telehealth since early 2020 has been remarkable,” said Mara Servaites, VTN’s executive director, who acknowledges the role the pandemic in causing the spike. “Providers recognized early on that telehealth was a way to deliver services remotely, and they recognized quickly that not only was the technology easy to implement but that patients really liked it.”

State policymakers also helped facilitate high adoption rates. Legislation that put payments and reimbursements for telehealth services on a par with in-person visits eliminated what had been disincentives to using telemedicine. Other changes were implemented as well.

One area that holds particular promise through greater adoption of telehealth is the potential to increase access to health services in remote areas and among underserved populations.

Doctor on laptop servicing patient through telehealth.

“Some of the barriers to care are the same in telehealth as in traditional care – the lack of health insurance, limits on broadband access, language and literacy challenges – but telehealth can introduce new solutions to these issues,” Servaites said.

Toward that end, Servaites says that VTN has put a priority on health care equity, especially as it relates to older Americans (and digital literacy among them), minority and poor populations, people with disabilities and those living in rural areas. For example, while 97% of Americans who live in urban areas have access to the internet, just two in three of those living in rural areas do. Hispanics are 42% less likely to have access to broadband with African Americans 51% less likely.

VTN is part of the Telehealth Equity Coalition, a national effort to address the current inequities as it relates to access to health care.

“If telehealth holds the promise of improving access to care, that has to start with increasing access to and comfortability with broadband internet,” Servaites said. “It’s a critical next step.”

For more information on the Virginia Telehealth Network and its Equity in Telehealth campaign, visit www.ehealthvirginia.org.

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