UF/IFAS offers up new telehealth initiative

Living in a rural county has its challenges, and for some, finding transportation to healthcare resources can be chief among those challenges. For those patients, getting in to see their primary care physicians can be difficult, and a specialty doctor is even more difficult as they are most likely located an hour or more away.

The University of Florida saw a need for more people to have access to healthcare and established a new program in Holmes and Washington counties. 

The Rural Telehealth Initiative is a partnership between UF/IFAS Extension and UF Health and aims to improve residents’ access to physicians who treat diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and other chronic conditions.  

The new program will enable patients to see a specialist virtually through a telehealth kiosk rather than making the long journey to the closest medical center. Both UF/IFAS Extension Offices will offer private rooms where patients can interact with their physician through a specialized, private computer connection. The program will start with existing UF Healthcare patients who live in Holmes or Washington County.  

Associate Dean for UF/IFAS Extension and the initiative’s co-leader Dr. Michael Gutter, Ph.D. says lack of access is the biggest hurdle people face in rural healthcare. 

“People in rural areas experience more health disparities than those in urban centers,” said Gutter. “Part of this is due to lack of access. There simply aren’t as many doctors or hospitals in rural areas and certainly far few specialists who treat chronic conditions.” 

There are barriers created by life that impact seeking healthcare, according to Gutter. 

“When folks have to drive several hours to see a doctor, that often means taking off work, which equals lost time and lost money,” said Gutter.  “These ripple effects create more barriers to seeking and getting health care.”  

Many patients throughout the state travel to UF Health, this program will make their lives easier says Chief of Pediatric Endocrinology and the initiative’s other co-leader Dr. Michael Haller, M.D. 

“There are many families in Florida who travel long distances to see a specialist at UF Health,” said Haller. “What if they could instead go to their local Extension office, which may only be a few minutes away? This program will make that possible and help ensure our patients are getting the care they need to live healthier lives.”  

UF/IFAS Extension Director for Holmes County Kalyn Waters says her office is thrilled to be able to offer a program to improve the lives of those in the community. 

“This is a critical opportunity for Extension to build a platform that will increase the quality of life for the residents of our county, especially for people who are already facing hardships from medical issues,” said Waters. “We are thrilled to be able to serve our at this level.”  

The program is funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a goal to have a much longer and broader program down the road. Much of the grant will be used to upgrade internet speeds needed to deliver telemedicine services in rural areas where broadband can be spotty.  

Both UF/IFAS Extension offices have set aside a private room equipped with a Tyto telehealth kit, which consists of an iPad and several devices that replicate instruments commonly found in doctor’s offices, such as a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff and pulse oximeter. The kit also comes with a high-definition camera that allows the doctor to see the patient clearly.  

But unlike a traditional doctor’s visit, in a telehealth visit, the patient rather than the doctor will use these tools. The tools automatically transmit information about heart rate, blood pressure and more to the doctor in real time.  

Providing better access to health care to rural communities helps fulfill the land-grant university mission, stated Gutter.  

“One hundred years ago, Cooperative Extension was going into rural communities to introduce the latest agricultural technologies and techniques so farmers and families could be more successful,” said Gutter. “In many ways, telehealth follows a similar model of technology transfer and connecting all residents with university experts. To me, this represents the next frontier for Extension.”  

In addition to receiving telehealth services, patients will also be invited to participate in other UF/IFAS Extension programs. For example, young people with Type 1 diabetes can join a 4-H club or someone with hypertension looking to change their diet can participate in healthy cooking classes.