Health Informatics and the Path to Improved Rural Care

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According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 19.3% of the population resides in rural areas. But the Bureau of Health Professions has reported that only about 11 percent of physicians choose to practice in rural communities, and 65% of shortages of primary health care physicians occur in these often-underserved areas. The result is that patients in rural communities do not have the same access to primary healthcare professionals, and the practitioners they do see are more likely to be non-physician providers such as nurses. Unfortunately, nurses simply do not have the same educational background as doctors, and they are therefore ill prepared for the demands of treating patients in rural areas, where they may be forced to take on many of the responsibilities that a physician would usually bear. But in this regard, health informatics can make a huge difference, providing rural healthcare providers with access to the tools they need to better serve their patient population. Here are just a few of the ways in which health informatics can help healthcare professionals in rural areas to do their job.

Shared data
One of the biggest advances in the medical field over the last several years has been the growth of electronic health records, and this is of major importance to both healthcare professionals and patients. As a healthcare provider in a rural area, you simply may not have the time or resources to chase down a patient’s medical history. But medical databases are emerging that allow healthcare providers to enter patient history and see older entries, providing access to all of the information needed to spot trends in patient health and make a more complete diagnosis. Even better is the fact that patients can also access their own medical records, adding to them, spotting mistakes, and even using them to become better informed about their own health.

Telehealth is a growing field by which healthcare providers and patients may interact remotely. Most people are familiar with nursing hotlines, whereby patients call in with problems to find out if they can treat them at home or if they should head to a hospital for care. Telehealth is a logical extension of this premise in the online world. With the right tools, healthcare providers can track and manage the health of their patients remotely to a large degree, alleviating the need for in-office visits in many cases and cutting down significantly on the workload for busy rural healthcare providers.

Social networking
With a shortage of healthcare providers in rural areas, it is important to give patients access to the tools and information that will allow them the potential to self-diagnose and self-treat to some extent. And many notable services have already made this possible; just look at WebMD. With more and more healthcare providers contributing to the formation of online databases and mobile applications designed to let patients take control of their own healthcare, overworked healthcare professionals are finding ways to help patients help themselves.

Development of new technologies
The field of health informatics depends largely on healthcare professionals to provide the impetus and the information required to create tools that are necessary and to ensure that they provide the solutions that will improve healthcare and the lives of patients. As a healthcare practitioner serving a rural population, you cannot only take advantage of these advances, but you can also have a hand in creating and supporting them.