This post was co-authored by Jenny Kattlove, Director of Strategic Health Initiatives, The Children’s Partnership.
With millions of Californians gaining health and dental coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the demand for doctors and other providers is greater than ever. Health care professionals are already warning of a physician shortage by 2015, but for many Californians, the physician shortage is already quite severe.
According to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges, more than 60 percent of all doctors in California practice in only five of California’s 58 counties. This has left countless rural residents driving increasingly long distances to doctors’ offices, waiting months for an appointment, overusing emergency rooms, and even forgoing care altogether. And it’s not just rural areas that face problems accessing care. Families in medically underserved urban areas also face barriers — such as a lack of transportation and inability to take time off of work.
Today’s technology can help ensure that California’s children receive the care they need. Telehealth — the use of technology to provide health care at a distance — holds the potential to bring health care to more than 2 million children in California and millions more across the country who live in underserved areas and cannot get the health and dental care they need. Telehealth can bring care right to children at their local clinics, schools or other community sites.
Recent advances in technology have made telehealth an important tool in connecting children to health care providers. The transition from phone lines to broadband has increased the speed and security with which information can be transferred and shared. Further, telehealth equipment has become more sophisticated and user-friendly. The use of laptops, electronic stethoscopes, portable x-ray machines, and electronic records allows the delivery of health care at a distance to be easy and convenient.
Now, instead of sending a child home with an earache, a school nurse or an allied health provider can use telehealth to connect that child to his or her primary care doctor. The doctor can look at images of the child’s ear through an electronic otoscope, diagnose the ear infection, and call a prescription in to the family’s pharmacy for the parent to pick up on his or her way home from work. The child never needs to leave school, and the parent can stay at work while the child is receiving high-quality health care.
Telehealth is also used to help manage common, yet serious, chronic childhood diseases. For instance, applications for cell phones allow children to input information about their diabetes or asthma, connect to a nurse practitioner or doctor, and receive alerts and reminders to help them better manage their diseases.
California is also facing a severe shortage of dentists. Programs like the Virtual Dental Home are using telehealth to bring dental care to children at schools and Head Start sites by having specially trained dental hygienists provide care at these sites, while using technology to connect to supervising dentists at a clinic or dental office nearby. With dental disease being the most common chronic health problem and unmet health care need among children, telehealth is a critical tool in bringing dental care to children who would otherwise go without it.
Until recently, access to care for millions of California’s children was often limited by geographic proximity. But telehealth helps break down that barrier and facilitates the care of children where they are. As more Californians get health coverage and try to see a doctor, it is in our best interest to invest in demonstration projects to show how telehealth can work on-the-ground and to make necessary policy changes so telehealth can be extended to more underserved communities. By allowing health care providers to examine and treat patients virtually, telehealth greatly improves access to care for patients in rural and other traditionally underserved settings. Our task now is to make the most of this opportunity to better realize the promise of this once-in-a-generation health care reform for millions of children and their families.