Bridging the Gap in Rural Health

Bridging the Gap in Rural Health

Ashley Letsinger, Director of Operations, Ochsner LSU Health

Ashley Letsinger, Director of Operations, Ochsner LSU Health

Ashley Letsinger is currently the Director of Operations of Ochsner LSU Health overseeing Strategic Development, Rehabilitation Services, and Rural Health. Over the last two years, Ashley was responsible for oversight of COVID-19 Clinic Operations in Northeast Louisiana for Ochsner LSU Health, which included organizing and overseeing the first mass COVID-19 vaccinations for the region’s 350,000 people throughout diverse rural areas. Ashley was recently awarded as one of the “Women We Admire” Top 50 Women Leaders of Louisiana for 2022.

Our rural areas have historically been defined as the highest in health inequities due to risk factors such as lack of access to quality healthcare and education,low socioeconomic status, and poor environment. With the innovation of digital medicine, closing the barriers to healthcare becomes a possiblility in more remote areas. To do so however, it is imperative to take a “boots on the ground” strategic approach to ensure that transformative healthcare occurs.

The pandemic taught us the art of agility, while simultaneously highlighting the obstacles in rural areas; the mindset of “build it and they will come” does not necessarily apply in all areas. Pivoting to the needs of sub-cultures of small rural towns was especially evident when trying to quickly provide healthcare access to all populations during the first mass COVID-19 vaccinations. For example, broadband does not exist in most of the rural areas in Louisiana. Providing online scheduling and individual telehealth appointments in these areas will not necessarily increase access to healthcare needs unless time is taken to understand the unique needs of each area.

"With the innovation of digital medicine, closing the barriers to healthcare starts to seem possible in more remote areas"

Building personal relationships with community leaders in all areas to understand the necessary direction and push the success of the programs is a priority. Where physician resources are limited, collaborating with rural community hospitals and family physicians helps understand current barriers that could be bridged with telemedicine programs such as TeleICU, TeleStroke, and TelePsych. Application of free standing, self-serve virtual wellness locations in frequented locations such as grocery stores, churches, and libraries with existing broadband service can help address the gap in acute healthcare access for non-critical illness easing the demands on emergency rooms--especially during healthcare workforce shortages.

Innovation and advancing technology create a pathwayto improved health, wellness and quality of life in rural communities, but people must open the door. While the advances in digital medicine will bridge the gap in rural health access, we must not discount the importance placed on relationships and understanding of rural cultures prior implementing these programs to ensure transformational change in rural communities.

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