Photo by Salgu Wissmath for NPR
With Rural Health Care Stretched Thin, More Patients Turn To Telehealth
July 07, 2019 | Patti Neighmond
After a difficult time in her life, Jill Hill knew she needed therapy. But it was hard to get the help she needed in the rural town she lives in, Grass Valley, Calif., until she found a local telehealth program.
Telehealth turned Jill Hill's life around.
The 63-year-old lives on the edge of rural Grass Valley, an old mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. She was devastated after her husband Dennis passed away in the fall of 2014 after a long series of medical and financial setbacks.
"I was grief-stricken and my self-esteem was down," Hill remembers. "I didn't care about myself. I didn't brush my hair. I was isolated. I just kind of locked myself in the bedroom."
Hill says knew she needed therapy to deal with her deepening depression. But the main health center in her rural town had just two therapists. Hill was told she'd only be able to see a therapist once a month.
Then, Brandy Hartsgrove called to say Hill was eligible via MediCal (California's version of Medicaid) for a program that could offer her 30-minute video counseling sessions twice a week. The sessions would be via a computer screen with a therapist who was hundreds of miles south, in San Diego.
Hartsgrove co-ordinates telehealth for the Chapa-de Indian Health Clinic, which is a 10-minute drive from Hills's home. Hill would sit in a comfy chair facing a screen in a small private room, Hartsgrove explained, to see and talk with her counselor in an otherwise traditional therapy session.
Hill thought it sounded "a bit impersonal," but was desperate for the counseling. She agreed to give it a try.
Hill is one of a growing number of Americans turning to telehealth appointments with medical providers in the wake of widespread hospital closings in remote communities, and a shortage of local primary care doctors, specialists and other providers.
Long-distance doctor-to-doctor consultations via video also fall under the "telehealth" or "telemedicine" rubric.
A recent NPR poll of rural Americans found that nearly a quarter have used some kind of telehealth service within the past few years; 14% say they received a diagnosis or treatment from a doctor or other health care professional using email, text messaging, live text chat, a mobile app, or a live video like FaceTime or Skype. And 15% say they have received a diagnosis or treatment from a doctor or other health professional over the phone.