Putting Nurse Practitioners in the Driver’s Seat for Better Rural Health

Are nurse practitioners just what the doctor ordered for improving rural health? Health experts and nursing leaders I talk with say the answer is a resounding yes. Now, a sophisticated medical office on wheels, developed at the University of Kansas (KU) Center for Design Research (CDR), is ready to help us fill that prescription.

The KU WellCar* empowers nurse practitioners—connected to remote physicians and other resources as needed—to take healthcare on the road. Created in collaboration with nurses and other health leaders, the WellCar was first seen as a vehicle to help nurse practitioners deliver primary care services in rural Kansas. But as healthcare continues to move out of the hospital or clinic and into the community and home, the WellCar is being eyed as a way to improve a broad range of healthcare services—and to extend care everywhere from inner cities to disaster sites.

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Empowering Mobile Care 

How does the WellCar empower you if you’re the nurse practitioner behind the wheel? It means you can arrive at a patient’s home equipped to perform diagnostic procedures, document care, and provide patient education. Instead of the traditional black bag, you’re backed by a van full of robust, compact medical diagnostics equipment and computer and communications technology. You’ve got the patient’s up-to-date health history at your fingertips, along with data from in-home health monitoring equipment. Reflecting your vital role within the healthcare team, you’re equipped to conduct video conferences with remote experts and to securely collaborate and share results with labs and supervising organizations.

There’s also a WellPac* that provides a case for carrying necessary equipment into the home and a work surface once you’re inside. But most equipment stays in the van—you transfer data to it wirelessly. The WellCar’s advanced communication system is also designed to link the digital equipment within the van and connect to secure external cloud services.

The bottom line is that you can deliver the compassionate, personalized care that is so crucial to both care-givers and patients—and in a more coordinated, productive way. You’ll also help fill an urgent need. Nearly one-quarter of the United States population lives in rural areas, but only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural America. Rural residents tend to be poorer than average and to suffer higher rates of poor health and suicide.[1] And of course the lack of healthcare services isn’t limited to the United States.

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A Product of Passion and Best Practices

One thing I love about the WellCar is that it reflects the passions of the people who have created it. Professor Gregory Thomas, who heads the CDR and directed the project, is a cancer survivor and educator committed to having KU’s design students solve significant, real-world problems. He and his students followed best practices for user-centered innovation, including cross-disciplinary collaboration and close involvement with potential users. Students viewed the project as not simply a set of design challenges, but as something that can benefit their families and communities. Their advances in remote data collection won them Connected World magazine’s University Competition held in Chicago at the 2014 Connected World Conference.

Passionate clinicians influenced all aspects of the design. Dr. Aenor Sawyer, associate director of strategic relations at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Center for Digital Health Innovation (CDHI), is both an orthopedist and a daughter who cared for her father at home for 10 years. She’s leading CDHI’s efforts to build out a next-generation model for highly distributed healthcare. She reached out to Professor Thomas after reading about the project, and became the WellCar’s medical director. Debbie Gregory, a registered nurse and co-founder of the Nursing Institute for Healthcare Design, shared her expertise in designing intuitive, productive healthcare experiences.

Gordon Alloway, former project director of the Heartland Telehealth Resource Center and now a consultant specializing in rural health access, contributed his passion for helping rural Americans maintain their highly valued independence.

Intel® Inside

I also love the WellCar as an example of people using Intel® technologies to do amazing things. A Panasonic Toughpad* tablet computer powered by the Intel® Core™ i5 vPro™ processor provides what Professor Thomas calls the technology brains of the WellCar. A custom communication system designed by Cornerstone Integration uses Intel® technologies for the Internet of Things to manage communications within the van and to the outside world. The Intel Health and Life Sciences team shared technology roadmaps, insights on mobile workflows, and advice on solving technical challenges.

Many other companies have recognized the WellCar’s potential impact and gotten involved. Ford donated a new Transit Connect Wagon*. Philips, HealthSTATS International, Vidyo, Voalte, and Midland Radio are among those providing expertise and equipment, either for the van itself or for patients’ homes.

Increasing Access to Care

Diverse organizations are beginning to explore how they can use the WellCar to help increase cost-effective access to high-quality healthcare. I’m excited to see where the WellCar’s road will take it.

What role do you see for the WellCar? Are you eager to get behind the wheel? I hope you’ll read more and share your thoughts. Together, we can expand access for underserved patients wherever they reside.

[1] For more about the data in this paragraph, see National Rural Health Association, What’s Different About Rural Health? http://www.ruralhealthweb.org/go/left/about-rural-health/what-s-different-about-rural-health-care.