Using Technology to Improve Rural Health Access

(Edwardsville, Illinois) — In rural areas, long drives to addiction treatment facilities are common. For individuals who lack transportation or may temporarily have lost the right to drive, the inability to get to a treatment program can be a substantial barrier to recovery. In 2011, funding from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helped launch the Illinois Technology Enhancements for Coordinated Health (TECH) Care pilot program in Illinois’ Fourth Judicial Circuit.

The Illinois TECH Care program used technology to engage justice-involved adults in Clinton, Fayette, and Marion counties, resulting in a streamlined care coordination system and increased client access to services. As an infrastructure development program, it piloted the use of video conferencing, automated wellness calls, and electronically shared data to respond to significant health and communication gaps for women and men with substance use and/or co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders involved in the criminal justice system.

To launch the program, TASC collaborated with Community Resource Center as a rural treatment provider, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as an external program evaluator, and court and probation system partners, with TASC responsible for overall program implementation, as well as technology integration, training, and case management.

“The program allowed us to schedule assessments via video, versus trying to schedule in person with long distances,” said Craig Cooper, who directs operations for TASC in 101 Illinois counties, and who oversaw clinical service delivery for the pilot. “The quicker you can respond to a client in need and get that level of engagement, the better.”

In addition to supporting improved behavioral health outcomes, telehealth can lower treatment costs by saving the costs of driving and staff time. Treatment, justice, and community service partners also benefit from the new technological infrastructure, which allows the sharing of health information among their sites and builds a sustainable, data-informed system of care for populations that are historically difficult to engage.

“Being able to provide services through videoconferencing or telehealth links individuals to services they might not receive otherwise in a rural area,” said Georgianne Broughton, executive director of Community Resource Center, which provides behavioral healthcare treatment, prevention and educational services. “Using technology positively to affect change in how we deliver services has been a benefit to our communities in rural Illinois.”

Along with its reputation for advocacy and facilitating access to and retention in treatment, perhaps less well-known is TASC’s history of technology innovation, as in the Illinois TECH Care program.

“TASC has always promoted the effective use of technology for social services,” said Marina Uk, director of Management Information Services at TASC, who served as the project director and led all technical aspects and implementation of Illinois TECH Care. The integration of technology across numerous TASC programs over many years has allowed for more efficient data collection, which in turn supports program analysis and ongoing service improvement.

As part of SAMHSA’s first cohort of Targeted Capacity Expansion – Technology Assisted Care (TCE-TAC) grantees to build a telehealth program to support the delivery of behavioral health services, TASC and Illinois serve as an example of how the innovative use of technology, along with coordinated implementation, can improve community health and enhance client engagement in care coordination activities. As elements of the pilot program are rolled out across Illinois, learning and knowledge will help counties plan for and integrate similar health information technologies successfully.

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