- - Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted quick action by government and health providers and real-world impacts for Americans in every corner of our great country. Universities and public schools close by the hundreds across the states. Sporting events, music festivals, conferences and other gatherings have been put on hold. Restaurants are closing their doors with carry-out and delivery only; bars are closed completely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging social distancing in every form, and the fallback is technology. Teleworking and tele-schooling will be the norm for many in the weeks to come. In this digital age, it seems almost anything is possible. And in rural states, we are quite familiar with another form of tele-life: telehealth.

In the past, telehealth services have been a way to bridge gaps and solve patient access challenges, making it easier for patients in the most faraway places to get the help they need quickly. This is especially beneficial to rural communities. That’s why we boosted telehealth access in 2019, long before we heard the term coronavirus, for Wisconsin residents in the state Medicaid program.

But today, thinking past the needs of rural communities and now turning to the needs of all communities in every state in the midst of a COVID-19, I can’t help but think telehealth is one of the most crucial allies to the calls for social distancing we are currently experiencing.

The usual benefits of telehealth, including no transportation costs, less time in the waiting room and no taking time off work still apply. But today, the benefit of lowering the chance of catching a new illness is at the top of the list.



Of course, strong telehealth services need to be supported by broadband access. Last year, Wisconsin increased funding for broadband expansion grants by $44M over two years. This funding is in addition to over $20M of state funding since 2013 that has supported 143 projects in all corners of the state. Significant investments in programs to expand access to Internet goes “hand-in-glove” with expanding telehealth access.

In rural areas, we are already suffering from a shortage of general practitioners — to say nothing of specialists — and that the nearest hospital could be more than an hour’s drive away. But our digital life is also creating amazing advances in the telehealth industry.

We’re seeing it in action as offices and businesses temporarily close, and states are using technology to stay connected from a distance. Substituting frequent doctor’s visits or health care needs with telehealth options is the only way to ensure those at-risk stay protected from the virus.

Small clinics and emergency centers are the frontline for rural health care, but they are often understaffed and underequipped to deal with the serious and varying conditions that face them. We will likely be seeing these trends in urban communities as the virus spreads in the coming weeks and health professionals are stretched thin.

That’s why the ability to access telemedicine services is so important for day-to-day medical needs during social distancing efforts. Services like Avera eCare connect these clinics with experienced doctors and nurses that can guide them through routine procedures or help stabilize a patient until a doctor arrives, or they can be transferred.

Apps like Doctor On Demand, MDLIVE, LiveHealth and many others can let patients connect with medical professionals all over the country in real time to get diagnoses and prescriptions.

More specialized apps like BlueState Diabetes helps patients manage their diet and medication. HelpTalk provides people with speech issues a list of phrases and images to better communicate their needs and feelings.

These circumstances are not permanent. They are strictly preventative and protective, and at the end of the day, the precautions the state and federal governments are taking will save thousands of lives. We must all come together and commit to stay away from one another — especially those with preexisting conditions and the elderly. The answer is telehealth and telemedicine.

• John Nygren is a Republican state representative serving Wisconsin’s 89th Assembly District. He is chairman of the Wisconsin State Assembly Finance Committee. Follow him on Twitter @rep89.

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