Mississippi: The New Health Care Leader?

Nurse at UMMC Telehealth

State’s Telehealth Program Becomes International Blueprint
A global eye is on Mississippi’s innovative health care model.
Numerous states and countries have turned to Mississippi, which has one of the largest and longest standing statewide telehealth programs, for advice and guidance on how to set up a sustainable program. In a state with numerous health care challenges, one might not expect to find an innovative health care model there, but the University of Mississippi Medical Center has exceeded the expectations of both Mississippians and the national audience with its telehealth program. Telehealth refers to delivering health-related services and information through telecommunications technologies. Telehealth is particularly useful in rural communities whose hospitals and medical clinics often lack the resources of their counterparts in more populated areas.
UMMC’s program has been operational for 12 years and has provided over a half-million telehealth visits. Annually, they provide an additional 100,000. Implementing a telehealth program in a state rife with health care obstacles has led others to look to UMMC’s success as a blueprint that can be replicated anywhere.

How are we different? UMMC’s Telehealth Program isn’t competing for existing business. It is partnering to fill the health care gaps around our state, making communities stronger. UMMC partners with clinics, hospitals, schools, businesses and health care providers to deliver the services they are unable to provide — either because they do not offer the services, or they need additional capacity. Mississippians are now able to stay in their community and get access to services that previously were only afforded to people in an academic medical center. Everyone wins with this model — the individual gets convenient and quality health care, the community keeps its health care dollars and UMMC maximizes the use of their health care experts. This model uses our state’s resources in the best way possible.

So what are the challenges? Health care and reimbursement policies need to be updated to recognize this new model of health care. The existing policies were written to accommodate traditional health care delivered in a health care facility and did not consider the use of telehealth, which can be provided anywhere. Mississippi is considered a leader for its telehealth policy and reimbursement legislation. Governor Phil Bryant passed telehealth legislation two years in a row to clear the barriers to the full adoption of telehealth. Mississippi was recognized by the American Telemedicine Association as one of only seven states with an A rating for these policies. Telehealth is an essential piece to solving the health care puzzle in our state.
The bigger challenge to full telehealth integration lies with our health care systems and providers. Are they ready for this transformative change in how health care will be delivered, and do they fully understand the magnitude of this change?

Mississippi’s wake-up call. Technology offers an unprecedented opportunity to reach all Mississippians in new and innovative ways, transforming our health care system. Our work has cleared the barriers to a successful model, but it also creates a new competition that our state has never seen before. Typically, the competition for health care in Mississippi was among hospitals within our state or, in some cases, with a hospital in a neighboring state. The technology that allows us to reach our patients more easily is the same technology that will allow any hospital, physician or company to reach Mississippians regardless of their location. Technology removes geographic barriers to health care, so that the health care provider is only required to get a license to practice in Mississippi but does not have to live here. The question is, what do these providers do when the telehealth service requires in-person care or further testing when they do not live in our state? Will these clinicians, who are unfamiliar with our state or our existing health resources, be able to help a person who needs more services?

Competition can be good as long as we are up for the challenge. Patients will have more choices, so the best health care providers with the most convenient and cost-effective solution will win. Will this solution be with our own Mississippi health care providers and health care facilities, or will clinicians affiliated with companies outside of Mississippi win? This is a wake-up call to Mississippi health systems and clinicians to partner to use telehealth to serve Mississippians with our local health care providers. Let’s not lose our place as a leader in providing health care through a community-based and culturally sensitive telehealth program.

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