Bringing High-tech Virtual Health Care to Rural America

For the third time, the USDA has awarded Mercy a $382,748 grant which will ultimately provide greater access to health care in some of Mercy’s most rural communities in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

“Almost half of the communities Mercy serves in our four-state geographic footprint are in some of the most remote rural areas,” said Dr. Tim Smith, vice president of Mercy Research. “These residents don’t have access to the level of care found in larger cities, and in some of these communities, they have no medical care. This grant will allow us to hardwire school districts, medical clinics and one community hospital with telemedicine technology so we can provide round-the-clock emergency coverage, access to hundreds of Mercy medical specialists and even greater access to primary care.”

The USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant is specifically designed to meet the educational and health care needs of rural America. Previously, the USDA awarded Mercy two rural telemedicine grants – totaling nearly $1 million – to improve rural access to health care. With this grant, Mercy will target three school districts, six medical clinics, one critical access hospital, as well as pilot a new concept, Mercy Healthspot Clinic in Geary, Okla.

The new “Healthspot” concept will provide a walk-in medical kiosk that reinvents a visit to the doctor. A medical assistant will help patients interact with a board-certified physician via two-way high-definition audio/video equipment and a variety of medical devices that will stream biomedical information in real-time.

The grant targets needs in communities with populations under 5,000 residents and includes: Booneville, Coal Hill, Mansfield and Waldron, Ark.; Ava, Mountain Grove and Shell Knob, Mo.; Geary, Healdton and Stilwell, Okla.

“If you live in Shell Knob, Mo., and you are pregnant and you need specialized care due to a high-risk pregnancy, you have to travel 63 miles one-way to Springfield, Mo., the nearest urban area to see a perinatologist,” said Dr. Smith. “Specialized physicians live and practice in highly populated areas. Communities like Coal Hill, Ark., Mountain Grove, Mo., or Geary, Okla., don’t have the luxury or the resources to provide this level of care. But with the use of high-tech, powerful cameras providing live video, a second grader in Waldron, Ark., 48 miles from the nearest urban area, can be virtually seen by a Mercy doctor at the district-owned clinic in the middle of a school day.”

Some of the grant money will go to Mansfield Elementary School in Mansfield, Ark., Waldron School District Clinic in Waldron, Ark., and Westside High School in Coal Hill, Ark. While the telemedicine equipment will be housed in one place, it will serve schools throughout all three districts. Patients accessing care through the clinics, the hospital in Booneville, Ark., and “Healthspot” kiosk will be “seen” by highly specialized Mercy medical teams, representing primary care and specialty care such as cardiology, perinatology and psychiatry.

“This means access to primary and specialty care unlike anything these communities have seen before,” said Dr. Bob Bergamini, Mercy’s medical director of innovative care.

In 2011, the USDA awarded Mercy a $495,926 USDA telemedicine grant for a three-year tele-home project that provided medical care to 900 people in some of the nation’s most hard-to-reach rural areas. Targeting patients with the most chronic ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and respiratory disease, Mercy’s first grant provided monitoring devices so patients could electronically transmit results directly to their physician from home via computer or telephone line. The second grant, totaling $500,000, provided telemedicine access to 12 hospitals in rural areas.

Mercy’s virtual care program, the driver behind the telemedicine projects, creatively combines people and technology to extend Mercy’s reach and services well beyond the walls of doctors’ offices, hospital campuses and other traditional facilities. By studying the impact of new approaches and then putting new technologies to the test, Mercy ultimately hopes to provide better care through more convenient and lower-cost locations.


Mercy is the sixth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 33 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children’s hospitals, two rehab hospitals and one orthopedic hospital, nearly 700 clinic and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,100 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. 



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