How Digitization Is Saving Healthcare Deserts


Healthcare access is a fundamental right, and quality care should be available to all individuals regardless of their geographic location. Unfortunately, rural communities across the country face significant barriers when it comes to accessing healthcare services due to location, income, or other disparities.

These underserved areas are known as “healthcare deserts” because they suffer from a lack of healthcare facilities, medical professionals, and wellness resources. But thanks to digitization, several emerging solutions are aimed at addressing these challenges. They could serve to turn healthcare deserts into oases for populations in need.

The age of telemedicine

COVID-19 prompted an explosion in the use of telemedicine across the country, revolutionizing healthcare access and delivery. For rural communities, it marked a significant shift toward accessibility as well.

Telemedicine goes beyond simple video chatting. It encompasses the use of technology and digital platforms to facilitate remote diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients. Through telemedicine, healthcare professionals can provide consultations, prescribe medications, and even offer specialized care — all without the need for in-person visits, which is often a barrier in rural areas.

For patients in healthcare deserts, telemedicine does more than overcome geographical obstacles. It also enables patients to connect with providers from the comfort of their homes, reducing physical and emotional burdens typically faced by these populations. It allows individuals to seek medical advice, access necessary prescriptions, and receive ongoing help for chronic conditions.

Thanks to telemedicine, patients who might have previously foregone care now have everything they need to take advantage of it — right from the palm of their hand.

Electronic health records facilitate access

At the heart of healthcare digitization, electronic health records (EHRs) play a vital role in facilitating access to care. They serve as the backbone of digitization and enable healthcare providers to store, manage, and share patients’ medical information securely and efficiently. Used correctly, EHRs are capable of enhancing the availability and quality of care in healthcare deserts.

With EHRs, rural providers can compensate for the limitations imposed by a lack of healthcare infrastructure. For example, when patients seek care through telemedicine, their medical records are readily available to healthcare providers. This accessibility streamlines the process to maximize valuable appointment time and achieve accurate diagnoses and treatments.

EHRs also empower patients to stay engaged in their healthcare journey. Granting patients access to their records creates agency, as they can manage their health information, understand their medical history, and actively participate in shared decision-making with healthcare providers. EHRs promote transparency and trust, encouraging rural populations to pursue preventive care consistently.

Rural challenges to healthcare digitization

Technology isn’t enough to save healthcare deserts. Adoption, utilization, and trust in these technologies are critical — by both providers and patients. Other barriers include:

  • Resistance to change. Skepticism and fear of the unknown can impede the adoption of new technologies, hindering progress in bridging the healthcare gap.
  • Lack of access to technology. Without the necessary infrastructure, individuals in rural areas struggle to leverage the benefits of digital healthcare solutions.
  • Privacy and security concerns. Privacy and security concerns (real or perceived) can discourage individuals from embracing digital healthcare.
  • Regulatory challenges. Navigating complex regulatory frameworks and compliance requirements can impede the implementation of digital solutions in healthcare deserts.

Creating oases in healthcare deserts

Digitization has become a de facto solution to addressing healthcare deserts. Telemedicine, electronic health records, and other innovations are democratizing care and creating accessibility for populations who’ve previously faced barriers to care.

While digitization is leading to a more equitable and accessible healthcare system, there are still challenges to overcome, such as resistance to change, lack of access to technology, and regulatory hurdles. Nevertheless, continued investment in and support for digitization is essential to ensure all individuals have access to the healthcare they need, regardless of where they live.

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