A 2019 study by the Commonwealth Fund ranked Georgia 42nd for state healthcare system performance with the biggest problems being affordability and accessibility of healthcare statewide. A large portion of Georgians, especially those residing in rural communities, lack access to quality, affordable healthcare. Telehealth and telemedicine have the potential to provide immediate access to a healthcare provider in communities where a physical hospital or a primary care doctor is not as easily accessible.
According to the Georgia Telehealth Act, telehealth is defined as “the use of information and communication technologies, including, but not limited to, telephones, remote patient monitoring devices, or other electronic means that support clinical health care, provider consultation, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration.” Telemedicine is similar to telehealth but slightly less broad; telemedicine refers specifically to more clinical healthcare services.
It is no surprise that the importance of telehealth became increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fear of exposure to the virus deterred many people from entering doctors’ offices or hospitals unless it was necessary. As a result, the federal and state governments had to look towards alternative ways to provide residents with access to healthcare services; this meant the expansion of telehealth. Dr. Justin Zaghi, the chief medical officer at Heal, claims the pandemic “accelerated the adoption of telemedicine.” Walkitria Smith MD, the chief digital medical officer at Morehouse School of Medicine, believes “telehealth can help erase barriers to health care such as transportation, poverty, and education.” Michael Carr MD, the project director of Emory’s Tele-EMS network and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Emory University’s School of Medicine, thinks telemedicine has “tremendous promise” in rural areas.
The Morehouse School of Medicine and Emory University School of Medicine have both highlighted the ability of telehealth to reach rural communities. The Morehouse School of Medicine started its telemedicine program in 2018 with an emphasis on providing care to individuals living in rural areas. In 2021, Emory launched a telehealth EMS program geared towards providing emergency medical care to 14 rural counties in Georgia. The goal of the program is to ensure that EMS personnel can connect with Emory’s emergency medical team through video to provide immediate support and coordinate treatment. These programs call attention to the power of telehealth and its potential to provide fast, reliable access to medical services for individuals living in healthcare deserts. Furthermore, schools throughout Georgia are looking towards telehealth to provide mental health services for students. Earlier this year, Atlanta Public Schools partnered with Hazel Health to expand telehealth services for students and families. The goal of this partnership is to make mental health services more accessible for students; APS students will have access to Hazel Health doctors and therapists from school and home. Telehealth has tremendous potential to make healthcare services more accessible for Georgians throughout the state and these programs highlight that.
The research surrounding the cost of telehealth is not entirely conclusive. However, many studies note the potential of telehealth to cut costs for individuals looking for medical services. A 2017 study from Health Affairs concluded an average telehealth visit cost about $79 compared to a regular, in-person visit which cost around $146. This same study noted, “per episode spending was lower if the patient had a direct-to-consumer telehealth visit, compared to an in-person visit, the convenience of telehealth led to greater use of care and therefore increased health care spending.” The convenience and accessibility of telehealth have the potential to drive up healthcare spending overall, but there is still more research that needs to be done regarding this claim. The bottom line is telehealth makes healthcare services more accessible for the patient and lowers the barriers associated with traveling for an in-person visit.
The Georgia General Assembly needs to focus on policies geared towards advancing and promoting telehealth services, specifically in rural areas. One of these policies could be expanding broadband access across the state. The USDA just announced it would provide a 36 million dollar loan to communities in central and west Georgia for the development of high-speed internet in these rural counties. This loan would ensure residents living in these rural areas of Georgia have access to the internet needed for telehealth services. Moreover, in the current legislative session, HB 608 has been moved to a second reading. HB 608 centers around the planning, deployment, and incentives of broadband services throughout the state to unserved areas. The Georgia General Assembly should work to pass this bill and then continue its work on expanding broadband and allocating funding for these projects. Furthermore, the promotion and education of telehealth services are also needed in Georgia; residents need to be aware of the options they have available to them. Telehealth makes healthcare more accessible and this could benefit so many Georgians residing in rural communities where access to a doctor often takes hours.