Healthcare technology incorporates virtually all areas of care – from electronic health records to advanced robotics used in surgery. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence and cloud technology are all pushing the forefront of what’s possible for patient care. 

One sign of the bond between healthcare and technology can be seen in the partnership between the Mayo Clinic and Google. The two companies began working together in 2019, and in February of this year, Google opened a permanent office in Rochester. 

“We’ve been hard at work laying the technical groundwork for a lot of innovation, with security and privacy foundational to everything we do,” said Cris Ross, Mayo Clinic chief information officer, at a press briefing in February. “Having this new space to facilitate our collaboration will really help us accelerate innovation and work towards a shared vision of a data-centric future, which we think can transform patient care and provider experiences and reduce the cost of care.”

Here in the Northland, hospitals in both our larger urban areas and more rural landscapes are incorporating cutting-edge technology – including telehealth and advanced devices – to provide for patients right in their own communities.

The use of telehealth has grown exponentially in the last two years, in large part due to the sudden demand for remote services during the early months of the pandemic. Telehealth covers a variety of services, from remote patient visits via secure online channels to providers working together across locations. 

Wilderness Health is a collaborative of independent providers working together to improve healthcare for rural Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. 

Improving access to mental health care has been a long-term goal of Wilderness. Before the pandemic, the group applied for the three-year telehealth grant, funded by the Health Research Services Administration (HRSA) Rural Health Network Development program. 

“Telehealth has long been seen as a way to improve access in rural areas,” said Zomi Bloom, Wilderness program manager. The HRSA award of approximately $770,000  was scheduled to begin in July 2020 but delayed by COVID. Lake View Hospital in Lake County is serving as the pilot site. 

The program emphasizes mental health. “We want to figure out how to improve mental health care through use of telehealth as a tool,” said Bloom. “Patients of member hospitals live in rural areas where they have to drive long distances to access care. In this region of Minnesota, the ratio of mental healthcare providers for the number of patients in the area is not adequate – it is below state average.”

Mental health just naturally lends itself to telehealth, said Bloom, noting that eventually the program could expand to other specialties.

The telehealth program includes a large consortium of health organizations across the Northland. Currently, Bloom noted, the Lake County Health Department is working to develop more hotspots for patients to access the internet and ways to check out devices for appointments. The Finland Community Center has a space where people can check out devices and use the WiFi to meet virtually with their providers. 

Partnering with communities and providers is vital to the program because, said Bloom, “This is not just about the technology. Technology is a tool to get patients better access to care.”

As the center for collaboration with other programs across the region, Wilderness Health offers other resources for member healthcare systems. Earlier this year it partnered to provide virtual training on motivational interviewing and quality improvement.

In September, the Wilderness program partnered with Grand Itasca Clinic and Hospital to offer a “Coordination of Care Roundtable” and bring together care coordinators, in person and virtually, to share resources and best practices and create networks across the region. Access to mental health services was the No. 1 challenge identified at the roundtable. The program ended with a tour of the Kiesler Wellness Center in Grand Rapids, a resource for care coordinators addressing mental and behavioral health illness in their patients. The center provides a safe environment and support with the goal to reduce and prevent psychiatric and hospital admissions through community-based care.  

For the full story, see the November print issue.