Futurist Michael Rogers Explores Where Rural Health Care Is Headed

All of health care is undergoing rapid transformation as organizations accelerate innovation efforts, explore partnership opportunities and other options for improving care delivery, and cost reduction. But rural providers may face special challenges. We asked futurist Michael Rogers for his thoughts about where rural health care may be headed amid all the changes. He will be sharing more thoughts about the health care revolution at the AHA Rural Health Care Leadership Conference Feb. 3-6 in Phoenix.

As companies like Amazon, Google, CVS and others transform how care is delivered to their employees and customers, how will rural health care providers be impacted?

First, the private sector is stepping up to deliver alternatives to our current broken system. The broad model involves verticalized health care delivery — providers, payers and pharma suppliers all under one corporate roof, or closely linked in partnerships that share automation, artificial intelligence and data analytics to maximize outcomes and minimize costs. The results of this ongoing intelligence will be cloud-based, so it will be equally available to practitioners regardless of scale or geography.

Second, all the emerging models assume increased use of telehealth technologies. The good news is that by the time telehealth technology really hits its stride in the next decade, rural areas will have far better broadband. This prediction may seem unlikely to those who are still struggling with balky, slow or nonexistent broadband today. But going forward, federal and state priorities, public-private partnerships and new technology will converge to deliver broadband access as widespread and affordable as electricity.

Given their more limited resources than those of large health care providers and health systems, how can rural providers still play an important role as the field continues to rapidly transform? Where are their sweet spots to excel?

A unique resource that rural health care providers have is, ironically, the difficulty of delivering services. It’s an exploitable resource, because one hurdle to the general use of telemedicine is physician and patient acceptance. It’s much easier to convince all parties to give telemedicine a try when the alternative is a 90-minute car trip for the patient, or weekly Cessna flights to distant clinics for the doctor. And that participation will begin to allow us to get real metrics on both outcomes and physician and patient satisfaction.

Early results suggest that the satisfaction rate is high, and that’s valuable data for the further acceptance of telemedicine nationally. On an ongoing basis, rural settings will continue to be a valuable testbed for new telemedicine technologies.

Any predictions for the future of rural health care given the various forms of disruption we’re seeing in health care?

All of the technological innovations are in my view big positives for rural health care. Remaining to be seen is what funding mechanisms will emerge. Health care in this new era of technology will be less expensive to deliver, but it will still cost money. And the U.S. needs to come to terms with the question of whether health care is a right, or a market-driven service with varying levels of quality and availability. The per capita cost of rural health will probably always be higher than urban or suburban delivery, so equity in funding remains a crucial element of care.

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