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Great Health Divide | Bringing telehealth to rural Appalachia

Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 5:06 PM EDT
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WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Mingo County has battled addiction, a loss of jobs, reduction of income, and a struggling health care system for years.

“We have such a high percentage of diabetes here in Mingo County, so our work is consistently trying to combat the diabetes issues that we have here,” said Kristin Deboard, marketing and nutrition manager for Williamson Health and Wellness.

DeBoard helps run the community garden and works to show healthy recipes to those recovering from addiction. The hope is that they’ll share those skills with their families as they work to reintegrate into society.

“It’s important that we show people things that are not commonly eaten here,” she said.

With an aging population of coal miners, many who live in the area battle chronic lung disease, hypertension, and heart disease, which keeps Dr. Dino Beckett busy.

As a lifelong resident of the area, Dr. Beckett watched the thready pulse of his community flatline after a steady loss of jobs. He knew there was a need to diversify the economy and improve health measures.

Dr. Beckett is a physician in rural West Virginia helping to connect patients with better...
Dr. Beckett is a physician in rural West Virginia helping to connect patients with better health care access.(WSAZ)

Dr. Beckett and a few other partners created DignifiHealth, a digital venture bringing medical access and resources to people, wherever they are.

“Technology can be anywhere, instead of it being in Silicon Valley or being in New York or wherever, why not West Virginia,” said Dr. Beckett. “It gave me a lot of pride to be able to say we’re going to do that and we’re going to that here.”

The technology combines medical records, pharmaceutical data, and remote doctors’ visits into one central place.

“For our providers to be able to meet people where they are, and to be able to connect with them at a level that they understand,” said Dr. Beckett. “We do care about them. We’re not just saying ‘here, take this medicine I’ll see you in three months.’ It’s more about let’s have a relationship about your health and your wellbeing.”

For patients like Beulah Vance, a trip to see a specialist in Charleston more than an hour away is a chore. But that soon could become a thing of the past with telehealth medicine just a click away.

“I’m not good at technology but I’m all for something that’s easy,” she said.

The rich history of Appalachia belongs to the people who live and work here. Dr. Beckett says he wants to see his community take back control of their story and change a narrative that has historically been told by outsiders.

“So that you can be around for your grandchildren,” said Dr. Beckett. “You can raise your family without all of these health risks or at least mitigating them to where it’s much more manageable.”

Richard Queen is the Chief Product Officer of DignifiHealth, with ties to eastern Kentucky.

“We can offer virtual triage and other telehealth services directly to a place of employment,” said Queen. “Instead of an employee taking two or three hours off work to go to a seven to ten-minute appointment, they can literally go to the breakroom or a private setting and have a physician appointment right then and there.”

Randall Ussery is a co-founder and board member of the program and discusses the importance of taking their tools and resources virtual.

“You can’t rely on traditional healthcare,“ said Ussery. “How do you get health to underserved populations who may not have access to a physician, or who may be 40 to 50 minutes away from care?”

Mingo County has been designated as medically underserved since 1978. The average life expectancy of residents is more than seven years below the national average.

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