In the wake of COVID-19, health systems have been scrambling to increase their telehealth and digital health services in order to continue providing medical care under difficult circumstances. Health systems, including those in Arkansas, have received federal assistance to boost their digital healthcare capabilities in recent weeks.
The South Central Telehealth Resource Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) is the latest institution to receive funding to continue its mission. The center has received $825,000 in federal funding to expand its digital health education efforts.
A part of the UAMS Institute for Digital Health & Innovation, the center covers Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.
“We are excited to use these funds to expand our technical assistance, outreach and education to help people in these difficult times,” Hari Eswaran, Ph.D., the center’s director, said in a statement. “We serve everyone from the rural physician who is trying to provide digital health for the first time, to the seasoned digital health provider trying to navigate the many regulatory changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The funding is derived from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27. This grant was administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
Demand for digital health has risen in Arkansas, as well as around the nation, in response to COVID-19. In an article for the New England Journal of Medicine, Sirina Keesara, Andrea Jonas and Kevin Schulman lay bare the flaws in the U.S. health care system and how digital health is a corrective for an “analogue system” of providing medical care that is increasingly incompatible with the needs of today.
“As an analogue system, health care is ill equipped to cope with this swiftly emerging epidemic. The U.S. health care industry is structured on the historically necessary model of in-person interactions between patients and their clinicians. Clinical workflows and economic incentives have largely been developed to support and reinforce a face-to-face model of care, resulting in the congregation of patients in emergency departments and waiting areas during this crisis,” they write.
For the South Central Telehealth Resource Center, demand has increased significantly since the beginning of the pandemic. According to Eswaran, use of digital health in March 2020 more than doubled from the same time last year; there were 412 one-on-one consults in March 2020 compared to roughly 200 in March 2019.
“April will outpace that,” Eswaran said. “We are getting requests from beyond our region as well. Providers nationwide are navigating these questions, and we’re happy to be able to help and have the funding support to do so.”