Montana has unique challenges in providing healthcare to its widely dispersed population of just over 1 million people.
Out of 56 counties in Montana, 55 are designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs), limiting access to both urgent and routine medical visits. The cost of travel and long distances between healthcare providers and patients are commonly cited reasons for patients to delay or avoid medical care.
The use of telehealth technology can improve healthcare access for Montanans living in rural and tribal communities by providing access to primary care and specialty services. Montana also is home to a significant Native American population, which makes up about 7% of residents. Tribal members experience significant health disparities due partly to inequitable healthcare access.
"These pre-existing strains have left many rural and tribal communities particularly vulnerable to broad-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Erica Woodahl, director of the L.S. Skaggs Institute for Health Innovation and a professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at the University of Montana.
"Rural and tribal populations have a higher burden of chronic disease and comorbidities known to increase the risk of morbidity and mortality associated with COVID-19," she continued. "Life expectancy of all Americans has decreased during the two years since the pandemic, but no group more than tribal people whose life expectancy has dropped almost seven years."
The pandemic also further reduced access to routine care leading to an increase in preventable complications due to chronic conditions, including emergency room visits, hospitalizations and overall healthcare costs, she added.
"Additionally, communities without nearby clinics or hospitals have not had adequate access to coronavirus testing or care, leaving rural and tribal patients vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19," she noted. "This increases pre-existing strains on rural healthcare systems due to provider shortages, limited hospital beds and other resource constraints."
In the telemedicine work of the University of Montana College of Health in Missoula, services would be provided through a centralized hub at the university with synchronous and asynchronous telehealth services provided to rural and tribal communities in partnership with clinics, hospitals and pharmacies across the state.
The equipment purchased with help from a grant from the FCC telehealth grant program would allow for the expansion of services within UM's College of Health.
"While the initial utility of telehealth technologies to improve care for underserved populations focused on immediate provision of clinical services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, benefits to patients will extend beyond the pandemic to address the challenges of providing healthcare to Montanans," explained Shayna Killam, PharmD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at the University of Montana.
"Telehealth technologies provide clinicians with the tools necessary to bridge the gap in healthcare access and offer quality healthcare to Montana patients," she continued. "Services will specifically target patients living in rural and tribal communities with chronic medical conditions and comorbidities."
The organization anticipates a broad reach across Montana, leveraging partnerships with clinical training sites and clinical affiliates to provide centralized telehealth services to a wide range of patients.
"Programs in UM's College of Health were awarded $684,593 from the FCC," Killam reported. "Funds were used to purchase telehealth equipment and connected medical devices, providing critical and remote services for patients in Montana."
Telehealth equipment will be used by faculty, residents and students affiliated with the University of Montana College of Health. Recipients of funding include the following:
- Skaggs School of Pharmacy (SSOP).
- Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana (FMRWM).
- School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science (UMPT).
- School of Speech, Language, Hearing and Occupational Sciences (SLHOS).
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MEETING THE CHALLENGE
Pharmacist-driven programs provide services for community-based chronic disease screening, education and management, including management of diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular risk and mental health through point-of-care testing, medication therapy management visits and consultations with telehealth pharmacists.
"Connected medical devices and video conferencing hardware will be used to provide routine and urgent care visits with medical residents and providers affiliated with the FMRWM, including diagnostics and monitoring, chronic disease management, prenatal care and mental health services," Woodahl said.
"UMPT programs offer home-based visits and services in end-user sites in rural and tribal communities, including remote evaluations enhanced with telehealth technology, such as vestibular function testing and gait monitoring devices, telepresence robots, and video consults with patients and other healthcare professionals," she added.
Clinicians and students in SLHOS will conduct telehealth visits via high-quality video and audio equipment, which facilitate effective evaluation and treatment for articulation and voice disorders.
USING FCC AWARD FUNDS
The University of Montana College of Health was awarded $684,593 from the FCC telehealth grant fund to purchase telemedicine kits to enable critical, remote telehealth services and to provide internet-connected devices for remote patient monitoring services for underserved, rural and tribal populations within the state.
"UM's College of Health has used the FCC telehealth award funds to expand telehealth programs offered by the interprofessional disciplines with an overarching goal of increasing healthcare access and addressing inequities in care," Killam explained.
"In addition to providing accessible and equitable healthcare, telehealth technologies will be used to train future health professionals," she continued. "Proactive training of our health professions students has the potential to transform the healthcare landscape in Montana and to overcome the challenges presented by traditional models of care."
The equipment purchased has empowered physical therapists to engage in remote monitoring of patients as they complete interventions within their home, said Jennifer Bell, PT, clinical associate professor, school of physical therapy and rehabilitation science.
"Oftentimes, patients have difficulty with balance and functional mobility within their home," she noted. "By utilizing technology, we are able to see a patient's home environment and support their ability to move around, minimize the risk of falls and complete a home exercise program."
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