The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that it will fund 81 Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) projects in 32 states, with the aim to connect rural communities with medical and educational experts in other parts of the country.
In sum, USDA is awarding $23.4 million in grants to support 45 distance learning and 36 telemedicine projects. One of the recipients, the Southern Hills Counseling Center in Jasper, Ind., will receive a $73,000 grant to implement a telemedicine system to improve the availability of mental health services in several remote Indiana counties. The network will give healthcare professionals the ability to connect in real time with urban-based mental health specialists. Additionally, the counseling center will be able to connect to rural hospitals that serve this isolated community, providing psychiatric diagnoses and support for hospital emergency departments.
Another project example is in Marietta, Ohio, in which Marietta Memorial Hospital has been selected to receive a $185,000 grant to provide telemedicine services to rural areas in southeastern Ohio and northwestern West Virginia. The hospital plans to create the first telemedicine system in the region, which has high rates of poverty, shortages of healthcare providers, and high rates of heart disease, lung cancer and other chronic diseases. The project will link 14 hospitals and clinics, including facilities in counties designated for special aid through USDA's StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative.
Some of the awards will also help communities provide services to address opioid misuse, a problem that is especially prevalent in rural areas. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who made the announcement last week, is leading an interagency effort to address the rural opioid crisis.
USDA Rural Development has provided $213 million for 634 DLT projects in rural areas nationwide since 2009. Since 2009, USDA Rural Development has helped bring high-speed Internet access to nearly 6 million rural residents and businesses; invested $31.3 billion in 963 electric projects that have financed more than 185,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines serving 4.6 million rural residents, officials note.
“Using technology for educational opportunities and medical care can provide services that are often unavailable in rural areas," Vilsack said. "USDA's Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program helps communities better meet the needs of their residents. For example, opioid and other substance misuse disproportionately affect rural areas, and telemedicine is proving to be an effective tool for treating patients when experts otherwise would be unavailable. Hospitals, schools and training centers across the country are successfully using telecommunications to deliver specialized care to area residents, and we are proud to bring these capabilities to 81 additional communities."
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