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April 04, 2023

Transforming rural patient healthcare access

Transforming rural patient healthcare access

Dave O’Shaugnessy

Healthcare Solutions Consultant

Thinking about digital transformation in the NHS, the mind jumps to city hospitals with thousands of beds and advanced new services. But in rural areas, the reality is quite different.

Take Wales, where 80% of the land is considered non-urban. 33% of citizens live in these areas. While they accept they must travel to specialised centres for certain procedures, the Health, Social Care, and Sport Committee (HSSC) found strong support for the delivery of a wider range of health and social care services in the community. Here, digital transformation isn’t about developing more advanced procedures, but facilitating access to specialised services.

And the need is urgent. In the wake of COVID, hospital waiting times have increased disproportionately in rural areas compared to urban, while emergency admissions have fallen 57%, compared to just 45% elsewhere. But meeting this need in areas with fewer hospitals and other clinical settings comes with a new set of challenges.


Servicing a dispersed population

Whereas urban environments see populations condensed into small areas, the rural landscape has a more widely dispersed population, with people often forced to travel great distances to access health and social services. This is time-consuming for the many rural workers whose livelihoods are impacted by taking even an afternoon off work.

To combat this challenge, the HSSC identified that a planned approach emphasising collaboration between services is best for meeting the needs of rural or remote populations. This is something the integrated care model lends itself to. By adopting new and emerging digital and communication technologies, healthcare providers can deliver more services remotely, providing access to even the most remote populations.

This remote access can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Farmers often work long hours during the harvest season. Many can’t afford to take time out for a long drive to a medical centre to seek treatment, so they prioritise work over health. Providing remote access means workers don’t have to choose. They get to continue with their work while receiving the attention they need remotely, improving their quality of life.

Meeting evolving staff and patient needs

COVID not only affected people’s physical health but also their mental health. Unfortunately, persistent lockdowns that deteriorated mental health coincided with a fall in referrals for talking therapies, at a time when the need was greater than ever.

At the same time, COVID exacerbated workforce issues up and down the UK. In the public sector, remote trusts were among the hardest hit, struggling to attract and retain the staff they need to deliver much-needed services to patients. Remote trusts depend more heavily on temporary workers as a result of being short-staffed, potentially disrupting service quality while increasing operating costs.

Typically, healthcare is seen as a vocation. Workers genuinely want to improve lives, lending their expertise to whoever’s in need, wherever they are. Giving staff the tools to deliver better-quality care makes it easier for trusts to attract and retain talent. And with greater collaboration they can work alongside specialised clinical staff in the virtual realm, drawing on their expertise to do more for patients.

Technology removes barriers to health- and social care. Healthcare providers around the world are beginning to design and are increasingly developing seamless, user-friendly experiences for their patients and staff, including portals. These enable timely communication and easy access to medical services on mobile devices. Ultimately providing digital health services such as patient appointment management, access to test results, medication or diet guidance, satisfaction surveys, and many more. This leads to stronger engagement with key services, including mental health support, improving health and wellbeing across the board.

Provisioning quality health- and social care, from anywhere

Enabling seamless remote care means trusts can save beds in smaller hospitals by monitoring and even treating patients at home. This would see patients and healthcare staff save on travel, and boost the overall quality of care – all while saving costs in today’s unpredictable economic climate.

As in Wales, by exploring the opportunities technology can offer for primary, secondary, and community care, trusts in rural areas across the UK can get more from the move to integrated care. With the ageing population growing faster in rural than in urban areas, identifying and investing in the right technology is part of a long-term, strategy for delivering quality health and social care. Facilitating even greater collaboration and data sharing not only makes the role of clinicians easier, but also translates to better patient outcomes, delivering the future of care for everyone, today.


Learn more about how your trust can enable seamless remote access to services in our NHS Vision Pack.

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