Telemedicine, Health IT, Hospitals

How Cerner plans to bolster rural hospitals’ telehealth efforts amid the pandemic and beyond

In a wide-ranging interview with MedCity News, Cerner CommunityWorks President Mitchell Clark discussed the healthcare challenges facing rural communities amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the company’s new free offering that aims to support rural telehealth.

Rural hospitals, many of which were already in dire straits, have been hit especially hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. The public health crisis has exacerbated existing challenges facing these hospitals, such as low patient volumes and lack of adequate resources. Recognizing the difficult position that many rural facilities are in, EHR giant Cerner has decided to make it easier for these facilities to deploy technology that can help them effectively address the pandemic.

The Covid-19 crisis necessitated a major change in care delivery across the country, with many health systems turning to telehealth to provide uninterrupted care to their patients. But pivoting to telehealth has proved challenging for many rural health systems that may lack the technology or high-speed internet access needed for these services. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  shows that health centers in urban areas are more likely to provide upwards of 30% of visits virtually than those in rural areas.

In November, Cerner announced it would offer a video visit platform to healthcare providers using its CommunityWorks EHR free of charge through the end of 2021. CommunityWorks is a cloud-based EHR tailored to community and critical access hospitals.

About 150 Cerner clients will gain access to the new video visit offering, Mitchell Clark, president of CommunityWorks at Cerner, said in an email. The company is also working with clients who want to use the free telehealth offering but do not currently use the latest technology to update their systems in order to take advantage of it.

In an email interview with MedCity News, Clark discussed the healthcare challenges facing rural communities as well as the reasons why Cerner is offering the video visit platform for free and what it hopes to achieve by doing so.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

MedCity News: What are some of the key healthcare hurdles rural communities are facing amid the Covid-19 pandemic?

Mitchell Clark: The CDC estimates about 46 million Americans live in rural areas, which face distinctive challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. Longstanding systemic health and social inequities have put some rural residents at increased risk of getting Covid-19 or having severe illness. In general, rural Americans tend to have higher rates of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and obesity as well as less access to healthcare, which can negatively affect health outcomes. Those living in rural areas are also less likely to have health insurance, according to the CDC. Other hurdles include rural hospitals continuing to close at alarming rates and lack of broadband access in some areas.

MedCity News: What will be some of the long-term effects of the pandemic on rural healthcare in the U.S.?

Mitchell Clark: The newly approved Covid-19 vaccines show promise that we could emerge from this pandemic in 2021. While many long-term effects of the pandemic on rural healthcare are yet to be determined, it’s important to mention some of the positive innovations we’re already seeing in rural health. Throughout the crisis, there’s been a constant theme of ‘explosive innovation.’ This has not only come in the form of new technology but also in the greater availability and adoption of existing technologies.

Given the nature of the pandemic, telehealth has grown exponentially. It is expected to continue to be used as an alternative option to in-person visits for the foreseeable future. Telehealth is a valuable tool that will give rural Americans easier access to care without as much travel.

MedCity News: Why did Cerner decide to offer the video visit platform to CommunityWorks clients for free through 2021?

Mitchell Clark: We recognize the financial burden some healthcare systems are facing because of the pandemic. We wanted to offer a native video visit platform for CommunityWorks clients free of charge through 2021 as a way to help providers and patients connect during this difficult time.

Understanding the strain on resources rural hospitals faced before the pandemic, it was important for us to open up additional cost-effective options for our clients and the patients they serve. I’m proud of the work Cerner is doing to help our clients through Covid-19 by rapidly developing tools to arm some of the world’s most essential workers.

MedCity News: What are the goals of Cerner’s initiative?  

Mitchell Clark: Our goal is to deliver a comprehensive, integrated experience that empowers consumers to be active participants in their health and care. We want to equip patients, especially in rural areas, with the ability to receive convenient, quality care using their modality of choice.

It’s important to note that Cerner collaborates with several key telehealth companies to assist our clients, especially in the battle against Covid-19. Whether it be a small, rural community or a large metropolitan area health system, Cerner has many telehealth options available to meet the demands of our clients.

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