Geisinger's journey to greatly expanded telehealth

Bill Siwicki

April 19, 2022

The prolific health system is now able to offer telemedicine appointments to patients for primary care, urgent care and more than 70 specialties. More than 8% of total outpatient visits now are conducted virtually.

Rural Pennsylvania is bigger than the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Some 75%, or 33,394 square miles, of Pennsylvania are considered rural. The geography is diverse, from rugged mountainous terrain to large stretches of farmland.

High-profile health system Geisinger and its affiliated entities serve 45 predominantly rural counties throughout central and northeastern Pennsylvania, 31 of which are a part of Appalachia, a unique region of the Appalachian Mountains that cuts through the western part of the state.

THE PROBLEM

"Access to specialty care for many of our communities is scarce; these communities already are faced with primary care shortages, and for those who need to seek specialists and sub-specialists, long travels often are a costly and time-consuming reality," said Tejal A. Raichura, director of the center for telehealth at Geisinger.

"Surveys show that rural Pennsylvanians are not taking care of themselves as well as their urban counterparts," she continued. "Fewer rural residents than their urban counterparts get the recommended exercise. Rural residents have higher rates of obesity, with almost two-thirds at risk for chronic diseases based on their sedentary lifestyle."

Rural residents are in poorer physical condition, have more health risks and are more likely to lack health insurance, she added. The wage gap between urban and rural Pennsylvanians is getting wider. In fact, it has doubled in the last 30 years. Improving the quality of healthcare while lowering costs and increasing access in rural Pennsylvania counties is challenging, she said.

"In 2018, Geisinger leadership committed to expanding our telehealth program and invested in a platform that could cover various elements of virtual care, including video visits to the home and our clinics, tele-stroke visits at our various inpatient units and emergency rooms, and video visits to non-Geisinger organizations, including other hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, correctional facilities, et cetera," Raichura recalled.

PROPOSAL

The business plan requested support for an expanded telemedicine program, one that would connect distantly located expert physicians trained in several specialties – including neurology, stroke/intensive care, pediatrics, primary care, geriatrics, psychiatry, endocrinology, rheumatology, podiatry and several others – with rural and underserved communities, allowing residents to access specialty care where they live and work.

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