BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — More than half of Alabama’s counties are considered rural and at least seven hospitals in those areas have shut their doors within the last 10 years.
According to the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, 46 of 67 Alabama counties are rural. Rural counties are characterized by an older population that is in need of more medical care despite lower median incomes and limited access to health care.
Rural Alabamians face shortages of health professionals for primary care as well as mental health services and dental care.
Telehealth allows doctors to perform checkups on their patients remotely with a high-tech, specialty camera system known as a telehealth cart and can involve the help of a nurse or technician at a clinic near a patient’s home. According to U.S. News and World Report, a telehealth visit costs an average of $45 while an in-person visit costs an average of $125.
Dr. Eric Wallace is the medical director of telehealth for UAB hospital in Birmingham. He is working closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) to expand telehealth services across the state. He told CBS 42 that telehealth has been crucial when addressing stroke mortality rates in Alabama.
“If a patient has a stroke in Alabama, they’re more likely to die here than any other place on the country,” Dr. Wallace said.
One reason the mortality rate is so high in Alabama is geography. Dr. Wallace said many patients live approximately 90 minutes away from the nearest neurologist — forcing them to waste valuable time traveling for treatment they need to receive immediately.
“We started in Demopolis, Alabama — heart of the stroke belt — and now our time to get a neurologist on the screen is less than five minutes,” Dr. Wallace said. “So it goes from having to drive 90 minutes to within five minutes, I have a neurologist that’s evaluating you.”
ADPH already has 55 telehealth carts available at county health departments and grant funding has been awarded to bring telehealth carts to 10 additional locations in the coming months. Once that process is complete, Jefferson County will be the only county without a telehealth cart at a county health department. Coosa County does not currently have a county health department.
“I think we’re on the path where in the next three to five years, every sub specialty at UAB will have a clinic in a remote area and everyone will have access to the care they need to be healthier,” Dr. Wallace said.
Mainstreet Family Care has several urgent care facilities located in rural Alabama towns with 16 locations scattered across the state from Oneonta down to Mobile.
“There are some counties that have zero physicians for the entire county,” Besty Stewart, a Mainstreet spokeswoman, said. “We were really shocked by that and as we started opening urgent care areas in rural places we found a lot of [patients] were so thankful, they were already driving an hour into Birmingham or an hour into Huntsville to get that after hours care or get that care on weekends.”
Due to increasing demand, Mainstreet began offering primary care services within the last year in addition to urgent care services. The company is also exploring telemedicine by partnering with a new program known as Dr. Wellington.
“$49 a month covers your labs, your basic procedures, your stitches your X-rays and all the visits you’re going to need,” Jessica Pryor, a spokeswoman for Dr. Wellington, said. “What’s cool about this is it’s also telemedicine and so you can come into the clinic to get your healthcare but you can also use the telemedicine option.”
Pryor expects the telemedicine program to launch in August and said all a patient needs to access it is an internet connection and a computer or smartphone to video chat or exchange instant messages with their health care provider.