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USDA Rural Development Telehealth Funding Serves a Sparsely-Populated Four-State Area

In rural America, especially in frontier regions of South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska the shortage of health care professionals tends to be pronounced. For example, 55 of South Dakota’s 66 counties, or 83 percent of all counties, are designated Primary Care Health Professional Shortage areas. There are even greater disparities in South Dakota rural areas regarding access to specialists. USDA Rural Development grants to Avera Regional Health System have been instrumental in developing and expanding telehealth services cost effectively to the smallest and most underserved hospitals and communities.

Avera is a regional health system with 29 hospitals in the four states listed above. In addition to 198 physician clinics and wellness facilities, 21 long-term care facilities, 14 senior apartment buildings and 13 assisted-living facilities. Avera’s system serves 51 South Dakota counties and employs more than 13,200 individuals, making it South Dakota’s largest employer. Avera is a recognized national leader in telehealth and has garnered several prestigious awards including the American Telemedicine Association’s 2009 Presidential Institutional Award. Avera is the only hospital to win “Hospitals & Health Network’s” (H&HN) Most Wired and Most Wireless awards every year since their inceptions.  Avera also has one of the largest and most comprehensive telehealth networks in the United States. A large portion of the funding to develop the Avera telemedicine program has been awarded through the USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program.

Early in 2011, Avera was awarded three more USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grants to expand telemedicine services across the region by adding 56 telemedicine access points. “This funding will allow Avera to provide more advanced health care to people and communities in hometowns across the region,” said Rachael Sherard, vice president of the Avera Rural Health Institute. “These additional services are essential to giving access to health care where people live. Our goal is to provide patients the highest level of care possible near their homes to reduce costs and travel time, and to keep people near family and friends where they heal best.” Since 2007, Avera has applied for USDA DLT grants and received almost $3 million in funding to purchase telemedicine equipment that rural facilities may not otherwise have been able to secure.

To learn more about broadband funding provided by USDA, click here.

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