By Tiffany Lightfoot

The COVID-19 pandemic has humbled our healthcare systems and alarmed the world. While taking lives and threatening whole communities, the pandemic is testing our abilities to work together and the true capacity of government, the private sector, disaster response and healthcare systems.

Telemedicine, a specialized area of telehealth, can serve as a beacon of teamwork and capacity building. Telemedicine improves access to care, infection control, and the economics of care by placing physicians and specialists in each setting they are needed virtually. Beam Healthcare leaders created a COVID-19 Response Superblog for rural hospitals that contains details about the technical, clinical, and regulatory requirements of developing telemedicine responses.

The COVID-19 pandemic remains a moving target. While we are still learning about how COVID-19 affects people, it appears that older persons and others with pre-existing medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, cancer or diabetes) develop serious illness more often than others, according to the World Health Organization and others.

Mortality for COVID-19 appears higher than for influenza, especially seasonal influenza. While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take time to fully understand, data indicates the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 35 and 4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually below 0.1%. However, to a large extent access to and quality of health care determines these mortality rates. While there are many promising clinical trials, there are currently no licensed vaccines or therapeutics for COVID-19.

Howard Young from Edgerton, Wis., has been operating his family farm since the age of 16. Young Farms is a family-owned, mid-sized farm that raises wheat, soybeans, corn, alfalfa, and about 200 beef steers. A few weeks back, Young described to me the pressure to stay healthy: “The cattle have to eat, too, so it’s not really an option to stop working, even when you’re sick. For many farmers, there is no backup plan for when you’re not feeling well.”

During a healthcare emergency or not, rural Wisconsin farmers face constant pressure to stay healthy and keep the farm operating. Telemedicine is a solution to maintain that physical and mental health, while increasing access to healthcare for rural communities and the farmers who feed America. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic this solution has become even more important.

Federal, state and local lawmakers have taken dramatic steps to both address COVID-19 and utilize telemedicine as a solution. For example, federal lawmakers passed the historic $2 trillion CARES Act. This and other legislation enable access to telemedicine in all needed settings. These settings include hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics and patients’ homes for both rural and metropolitan communities. The intent is to bring expert care to patients instead of the reverse. This slows the spread of disease, improves health outcomes across all domains, optimizes the use of resources, and extends the reach of expert providers so more people can have access to high-quality healthcare.

Telemedicine, however, has its challenges. Certain types of care continue to require in-person delivery. There is a broad range of telehealth technologies that may or may not be appropriate for all care settings. There can be confusion about the economic and regulatory requirements for creating and providing telemedicine programs. Lastly, transitioning from traditional care models often requires not only systems change but also culture change.

Beam Healthcare is working to expand telemedicine service to more Wisconsin communities to assist them in the fight against this pandemic, specifically, and to strengthen health systems, in general. Beyond simply staffing hospitals remotely, Beam Healthcare works with rural hospitals to identify the most appropriate technology, understand economic and regulatory requirements, and adopt the systems and culture required for successful telemedicine programs. This, in turn, will create economies of scale by allowing provider coverage to extend beyond a single institution giving benefit to a greater number of communities.

Please see Beam Healthcare’s  COVID-19 Response Superblog for a better understanding of telemedicine’s role in the face of this evolving pandemic. To discuss telemedicine needs or partnerships, contact Beam Healthcare.

Lightfoot is the vice president for nursing telemedicine and advocacy for Beam Healthcare.