Rural telehealth initiatives in the South to gain significant boost from USDA

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Rural communities in six Southern states are to receive up to $6 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to further develop telehealth initiatives to address the growing need for healthcare IT implementation in the Delta region.

Approximately 10 healthcare IT projects will receive the funding to improve standards of care in economically challenged rural areas where poverty rates are high. In addition to healthcare IT initiatives in states including Mississippi and Kentucky, the funds will also be used to develop mobile health units in Alabama. Approximately 252 counties across the six eligible states will benefit from the funding.

“The USDA’s announcement signals a widespread consensus at various government agencies that telehealth is a critical tool to help meet their mandates,” Irene Berlinsky, a senior research analyst at IDC Health Insights, told Information Week. “Targeting both telemedicine and [electronic health records (EHRs)] is needed. Telemedicine can solve the problem of access to care, but EHRs are needed to make that care efficient, especially in a setting where doctors are scarce and overworked.

Berlinsky added that the distribution and specific project allocation of the funds shows an increased understanding by USDA officials of how healthcare IT can best serve rural communities by reflecting a need for ongoing investment in healthcare IT personnel and continued professional development.

The announcement signifies another significant investment of government funds to leverage healthcare IT and medical informatics technology to address problems in providing quality healthcare to rural areas.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced earlier this year that it would disperse more than $12 million in federal funds to enable critical access hospitals in rural communities to purchase clinical informatics technology.