Rural Health Network Development ProgramPalmetto Care Connections

The Georgia Health Policy Center recently spoke to Kathy Schwarting, CEO of Palmetto Care Connections, about how the telehealth network pivoted from having a provider focus to helping on the patient side as a result of the pandemic. 

To date, what has been the biggest accomplishment or win for your network?  

With our Network Development grant, we were able to create virtual telehealth access centers in rural areas of South Carolina. We identified several community champions who have helped us with education on what telehealth is, that patients should not be fearful of telehealth, and that it is still a confidential visit with a provider. Because of this program, we have patients that would otherwise not be able to their doctor’s office due to barriers such as transportation or lack of a primary care provider. We have been able to connect them with a primary care provider and bring care to these patients where they are in their local community so that they do not miss out on appropriate and much needed health care. 

What is a tip that you would share with an organization launching a similar network?  

I think the most important thing that you can do in building a network is to establish trust with your partners, whether that is your patient population or the health care providers or associations that you may work with. Once you establish that trust and that you are credible — that you do what you say you are going to do — that will set the stage for the network. 

You also have to be willing to reevaluate your plans and to be flexible if you are going to have a successful network. You cannot always go with what your first idea was. Be willing to do your own self critiquing and the critiquing of your own network. You have to be willing to acknowledge that what thought would work, might not work now. So, you have to be willing to change course and be willing to listen to your partners. Their view on how something might work may be different than yours. One system or one process may not work in every community. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work —be flexible and also learn how other grantee networks are doing it so you do not have to reinvent the wheel. 
Lastly, don’t go after the biggest prize first. Establish credibility with your partners and with the people that you are trying to show the benefit of your network to whether that is partners, community leaders, or community members. Start small, have some success, and gradually increase the difficulty of the tasks. 

How do you see participation in the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s Network Development Program impacting your broader health improvement efforts? 

I think the flexibility that this grant program gives is one of the reasons that you can be successful. It has allowed us to expand our partnerships. For example, now we have Clemson Rural Health, which is part of Clemson University, as a partner. Because of the work that we are doing with local housing authorities, they wanted to partner with us not only to help us expand telehealth, but to provide health care providers to patients that may not have an existing provider. 
Also, we are getting ready to put one of our telehealth carts in a local office on aging in a rural community. That attracted a lot of interest from some of our local legislators. This will allow us to expand the knowledge base of what telehealth is and can do to our state leaders and legislators who are not necessarily health care providers. Ultimately, that may help us with telehealth reimbursement if they are more knowledgeable. 
We have also been able to leverage this work for additional dollars. The telehealth center access centers were created with the Network Development grant, but we have been able to get additional funding to bring digital literacy programs to those telehealth access centers. 

What will your organization be doing more of or differently to emerge stronger from the pandemic? 

The pandemic was a horrible thing, but it was absolutely great for the work that we do. In South Carolina, it probably pushed telehealth forward by 10 years from where it would have been. Now, we do not have to focus so much on educating the providers on telehealth, which is what we were doing prior to the pandemic. They learned they had to implement telehealth as part of their service.  
The pandemic caused us to really focus on the patient more — making sure that the patient has the education and the tools that they need to be able to do telehealth and to access health care service. I do not think we will ever go back to where we were. Telehealth is now here to stay. Patients are now empowered and asking that their provider do telehealth.

We have gotten into digital literacy and teaching patients how to do telehealth, which is not something that we had done prior to the pandemic, but it is something that we will continue to do. More folks are interested in how we can meet the patient where he or she is now — bringing the care to them — and telehealth will enable us to do that. 


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