Rural hospitals could help patients save an estimated $5,600 a year by using telehealth in the emergency department (ED), according to a new study from The University of Iowa (UI).

The study, “Using tele-emergency to avoid patient transfers in rural emergency departments: An assessment of costs and benefits,” was published recently in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare.

According to the study’s researchers, the savings in patient care come from avoiding transfer to a another hospital and the transportation-related expenses that come along with it, including missed time at work, lodging and other personal expenses of accompanying friends or family members.

“Our study’s primary goal was to identify the amount of money saved in situations when remote emergency medicine professionals can provide the necessary insight to help local providers avoid transfer of the patient,” says Nabil Natafgi, research associate and adjunct assistant professor of health management and policy at the UI College of Public Health and study co-author. “The cost savings is significant and should help more rural health systems recognize the financial and non-financial value of telemedicine.”

The use of telehealth in the ED allows small, rural hospitals to connect with hub hospitals staffed by full-time ED physicians and registered nurses. Interactive audiovisual technology allows caregivers at the hub to examine patients remotely and decide whether the patient can be treated locally or should be transferred to a larger, better-equipped facility.

The researchers looked at more than 9,000 ED telehealth encounters over the course of 52 months at 85 small, rural hospitals in seven states that are part of Avera eCare. They found that nearly 1,200 patients likely would have been transferred if not for the telehealth service.

“The study points out that avoiding a transfer provides numerous other benefits,” says Marcia Ward, Ph.D., a UI professor and director of the Rural Telehealth Research Center. Ward served as senior author on the research article. “It keeps patients closer to their families and support networks, particularly elderly patients, and provides a means for which patients receive earlier diagnoses and intervention. Also, having a telehealth system increases the reputation of the rural hospital in its community.”