The Growth Channel

How telehealth improved pregnancy outcomes and patient retention in rural Georgia

by Emily Johnson and Samara Ford

In a troubling trend, maternal mortality rates in the United States continue to rise, even as they decline in other developed nations. Equally alarming, the United States also experiences high rates of pre-term birth and low birth weight.

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These outcomes are due, in part, to a maternal fetal medicine (MFM) specialist shortage and exacerbated by the uneven provider distribution across urban and rural areas: 98% of MFM specialists are located in metropolitan areas.

For health system strategists who are unable to recruit or sustain a full-time MFM specialist, the consequences take on another dimension: When high-risk patients are referred out for an MFM consultation, they often stay with the MFM's practice for delivery.

To fill this service gap, select organizations have tapped into specialty telehealth programs to enable expectant mothers to receive care close to home and health systems to retain these patients for delivery.

Read on to learn how one telehealth provider improved pregnancy outcomes while helping rural health systems in Georgia retain women with high-risk pregnancies by meeting all their care needs close to home.

Identifying a (very wide) gap in Georgia

In Georgia, which has some of the poorest birth outcomes in the U.S., 27,500 babies were born pre-term and/or underweight in 2017. Contributing to this, Georgia is severely undersupplied in appropriate maternity care providers: The entire state has only 20 obstetricians (OBs) who are licensed to deliver high-risk pregnancy care.

Using Telehealth to Fill the Service Gap

Women's Telehealth, an Atlanta-based MFM practice, offers 100% of its consults virtually to supplement local care offered by rural providers in Georgia and neighboring states.

Health systems partner with Women's Telehealth, which provides support and care to high-risk pregnancy patients. These patients can visit their local OB's office, where a virtually-present MFM assists with care planning for a safe, healthy delivery. This way, patients get otherwise-inaccessible specialty care, and rural hospitals are able to provide appropriate care without recruiting new specialists.

The result? In partnership with Georgia Medicaid, Women's Telehealth was able to reduce pre-term birth rates in targeted clinics by nearly 50%.

A positive byproduct: Translating outcomes into patient loyalty

Access issues not only result in poor health outcomes, but in missed opportunities for downstream patient retention. By involving MFMs in the care planning process, Women's Telehealth prepares rural providers to care for high-risk pregnancies and deliveries.

Furthermore, MFMs can virtually collaborate with rural neonatologists to notify them about expected complications, helping to coordinate care for these complex newborns. For example, after partnering with Women's Telehealth, one rural hospital was able to keep 95% of the NICU cases that would have previously been referred to a higher-acuity setting.

Why telehealth technology isn't enough

There are dozens of telehealth technologies to choose from. But planners who ask, "What technology should I invest in?" are focusing on the wrong question.

Technology is a tool that enables strategy, not a stand-alone solution. To build a successful strategy that effectively leverages telehealth technology, start by asking these three targeted questions.

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