Bringing High-Tech Virtual Health Care to Rural America

December 3, 2019

ST. LOUIS – For the fourth time, the USDA has awarded Mercy a substantial grant that will provide greater access to health care in some of Mercy’s most rural communities in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Thanks to the $496,349 USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, Mercy Virtual will implement a project that includes hospitalists, emergency care, stroke and neurology services. Video equipment will benefit more than 210,000 residents and will be placed in nine communities, including:

“Almost half of the communities Mercy serves are in some of the most remote rural areas,” said Mark Saxon, vice president of clinical operations for Mercy Virtual. “These residents don’t have access to the level of care found in larger cities, and in some of these communities, they have no medical care. This grant will allow us to install video equipment that will provide access to hundreds of Mercy medical specialists and even greater access to primary care.” 

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The grant is part of $42.5 million the USDA is investing in 133 distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and two U.S. territories. USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements, business development, housing, community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care, and high-speed internet access in rural areas.

“If you live in small community and you have a stroke, you sometimes have to travel 50 to 100 miles one way to the nearest urban area to see physicians highly trained in stroke care,” said Dr. Gavin Helton, Mercy Virtual’s senior vice president of population health. “Specialized physicians live and practice in highly populated areas. Many rural communities don’t have the luxury or the resources to provide this level of care. But with the use of high-tech, powerful cameras providing live video, someone in Healdton, Oklahoma, can be virtually seen by a Mercy doctor hundreds of miles away.”

The USDA grant is specifically designed to improve rural access to health care. In 2011, the USDA awarded Mercy a $495,926 telemedicine grant for a three-year project that provided medical care to 900 people in some of the nation’s most hard-to-reach rural areas. Targeting patients with the most chronic ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and respiratory disease, Mercy’s first grant provided monitoring devices so patients could electronically transmit results directly to their physician from home via computer or telephone line. The second grant, totaling $500,000, provided telemedicine access to 12 hospitals in rural areas, and a third $382,748 grant targeted three school districts, six medical clinics and one critical access hospital.

Mercy Virtual, the driver behind the telemedicine projects, creatively combines people and technology to extend Mercy’s reach and services well beyond the walls of doctors’ offices, hospital campuses and other traditional facilities. By studying the impact of new approaches and then putting new technologies to the test, Mercy ultimately hopes to provide better care through more convenient and lower-cost locations. 

Mercy, named one of the top five large U.S. health systems from 2016 to 2019 by IBM Watson Health, serves millions annually. Mercy includes more than 40 acute care, managed and specialty (heart, children's, orthopedic and rehab) hospitals, 900 physician practices and outpatient facilities, 45,000 co-workers and 2,400 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has clinics, outpatient services and outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In addition, Mercy's IT division, Mercy Technology Services, and Mercy Virtual commercially serve providers and patients from coast to coast.


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