Since the pandemic’s onset, we’ve learned a lot about the impact of digital technologies like telehealth services and remote patient care models. These services have been pivotal for ensuring the nearly 78 million people who live in rural communities across the US have access to a healthcare provider.

But telecommunications and digital pathology capabilities within rural clinics also benefit primary healthcare providers by elevating the quality of patient care they can provide with no heavy investment in lab equipment or additional staff. 

With a digital pathology workflow, your patient’s lab results are sent electronically directly to each patient’s EMR. Plus, a digital image of your patient’s results makes it possible to collaborate with expert dermatopathologists from all over the country to utilize their expertise for the best care options possible.

Let’s talk about the current state of healthcare in rural communities and how the need for alternatives in delivering patient care, including specialized care, is in sync with digital technology capabilities. Then, we’ll explore how transitioning to digital technology doesn’t require more overhead costs. Instead, it empowers your rural clinics to expand accessibility and be more effective with existing staff. Here’s how. 

Understanding the Doctor-to-Rural-Patient Ratio

First, let’s understand what doctors in rural communities face. The National Rural Health Association says the ratio of doctors to the population in the rural communities they serve averages around 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people. This is compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 in urban areas. Access to specialized care is even lower, with only around 30 specialists serving 100,000 people in rural areas. These facts underline how critical it is for technology to bridge the gap between modernized healthcare and America’s rural regions. 

Comparing General Clinical Care to Specialized Care

In many cases, rural clinics staff medical school residents who can provide effective general care. On any given day, these busy rural clinics respond to various patient care needs ranging from setting bone fractures and running a lab test for a bladder infection to vaccinating an infant. 

But what about chronic skin conditions? An NIH study found that rural communities in Texas, for instance, experience higher incidences of cancer than urban areas, particularly melanoma, which accounts for over 7,000 deaths each year. And in Utah—which holds the rather dubious honor of reporting the highest incidences of melanoma and mortality rates in the US (80 percent higher than the national average)—96 percent of its land is rural or frontier. 

“Patients from rural and frontier counties may have different pathways of care to a melanoma diagnosis,” explains Tawnya L. Bowles and her research team. “Rural patients may not have proximity to a diagnosing provider and the specialty of the diagnosing provider may be different compared with urban patients. Furthermore, patient and tumor characteristics may also be influenced by rural residence.”

With early detection playing such a huge role in successfully treating chronic skin diseases, how can rural clinics best deliver optimal care without increasing overhead costs? Simple: Bring the dermpath lab and their team of specialists to the clinic. And that’s where digital technology comes into play.

Digital Technology: A Modernized Tool for Accessible Specialized Care

In any pathology case, tissue samples of the affected area must be collected, then processed in a pathology lab. Digital dermpath specialists add an additional process of digitizing slides in a scanner, which allows for improved access to whole-slide images for both the requesting physician and the dermpath lab, typically resulting in a shorter diagnostic turnaround time.

But here’s where rural clinics benefit from this technology: Since the process is virtual, slides can be instantly shared with specialists anywhere in the world. Some dermpath labs—including PathologyWatch—also have specialists in other fields on staff, allowing them to have even more immediate access to virtual slides after they’ve been digitized without needing to send glass for a consultation.

A dermatopathologist’s understanding of skin diseases includes knowing which ones can indicate something else, such as systemic diseases found in other parts of the body that may present dermatologically. Through digital dermatopathology, dermpaths can conveniently review and share slides with specialists familiar with these indicators and include those specialists’ findings as part of their report. 

Enhanced Patient Care

Understanding the correlation between dermatopathology findings and disease with readily available access to specialists can ultimately result in improved patient care. Once a diagnosis has been established, a primary care physician can take a swift and appropriate course of action. With digital technology, doctors can treat patients anywhere without requiring more full-time staff or expensive lab equipment. 

Compared to traditional pathology practices, digital pathology provides a strategic resource in qualitative analysis and reduces errors through the conversion of slides into digital imagery.

With an extensive network of specialists in multiple fields, digital dermpath labs can generate more detailed reports based on additional findings through collaboration achieved by sharing these high-resolution digital slides with specialists. That means a rural clinic in Hurricane, UT, can feel confident that they are providing the same caliber of specialized care for their patients as those treated in larger cities. 

Digital pathology can transform your rural clinics by offering patient care services that weren’t possible a decade ago. With digital technology as the foundation of your care delivery process, your staff will provide the most innovative dermatological care available, partnered with a personalized and caring patient experience. 

Contact us today for a free demo if you’re interested in learning more about how PathologyWatch, our team of dermatopathologists, and our network of dermatopathologists can help you.