It’s hard to think of a more universal “specialty” than women’s health. OB/GYN professionals are tasked with optimizing not only women’s well-being but the beginning of human life. A pregnant woman’s healthcare strongly influences her baby’s health, and excellent prenatal and postnatal care are the building blocks that can shape the template of the life to come.
But that’s the ideal. The reality – especially in the rural U.S. – can be a dangerous lack of gynecological care. One in five Americans lives in a rural area, including about 18 million women of reproductive age, and it’s those areas facing closures of maternity units and hospitals. Between 2004 and 2014, 179 rural counties lost hospital-based obstetric services; by 2014, more than half of all rural counties lacked a hospital offering maternity care.
Traveling to a distant OB/GYN practice for every appointment isn’t a realistic option for many rural women, who usually have few public transit options and may be unable to find childcare or afford time off work. According to the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services, 10 to 40 percent of women skip postpartum visits for these reasons.
All of this adds up to a lack of access to quality health care – before, during, and after pregnancy. And that can lead to dismal repercussions for women and their infants. Some wind up giving birth at hospitals with no obstetric units, while others give birth outside of a hospital setting entirely. These women face a higher risk of low birth weight, preterm births, maternal mortality, and postpartum depression.
Luckily, telehealth can change that by supporting not only women’s overall health but optimizing healthy pregnancies and births.
5 Advantages to OB/GYN Telemedicine
If you’re new to telemedicine, you might think OB/GYN opportunities are limited. After all, prenatal care often involves ultrasounds and other hands-on care. But today’s telehealth capabilities include specialty software and devices such as ultrasound probes and HD cameras, as well as the ability to share data with EHR systems.
That’s one reason the new CMS Rural Health Plan is dedicating $12.4M to a pilot project designed to improve maternity and obstetrics care through telehealth. Designed to expand access to maternal care, the Rural Maternity and Obstetrics Management Strategies (RMOMS) program includes telehealth initiatives for rural clinics, critical access hospitals, and FQHCs to assist underserved patients in 5 ways:
- Solving OB/GYN shortages. Rural patients can connect to specialty expertise even when it’s not available in their areas; providers can see more patients by offering after-hours and weekend visits and reaching women in distant locales.
- Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM). Pregnant women treated for high blood pressure or depression can participate in remote medication monitoring, sparing them an office visit, while women with gestational diabetes can receive support for specific meal plans and insulin checks.
- Faster treatment. Providers can remotely check on patients with preeclampsia to see if they’re experiencing any symptoms like blurred vision or a headache that would warrant an urgent intervention.
- Post-operative care. Women who’ve recently undergone procedures like a C-section, hysterectomy, ovarian cyst removal or laparotomy can receive follow-up care while staying home during their recuperation period.
- Counseling and education. Many new mothers are increasingly turning to telelactation for help with breastfeeding and latch techniques. Women experiencing postpartum depression or couples trying to conceive can receive expert coaching and counseling through telehealth; patients who want to discuss a recent lab result after a biopsy or STI test can quickly connect to a clinician.
Turning Virtual Care into Lifelong Benefits
Canceling healthcare disparities and optimizing care delivery for all patients has long been a telehealth mission. Given how many pregnant women and new mothers struggle to access care, virtual OB/GYN care can offer a bridge across the rural divide – and give some of our most vulnerable patients a stronger start in life.