Op-Ed: New study shows how to expand health care in Louisiana

Eric Peterson | Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation Policy

In the early days of Louisiana’s COVID-19 outbreak, it became clear that the state needed more medical professionals to care for those battling the virus. While Louisiana policymakers have little control over the number of doctors and nurses in the country, a new study from the Pelican Institute and the Reason Foundation offers a roadmap on how to increase the number of medical professionals practicing in Louisiana.

The study notes that Louisiana has 26 physicians per 10,000 residents, in line with the national average. As is the case with many states, however, physicians are concentrated in densely populated areas. Fifteen rural parishes, by contrast, have fewer than five physicians per 10,000 residents.

Expanding access to physicians can be done with technologies like telehealth, a service that has seen its use increase dramatically throughout the pandemic. As this technology evolves, the state must make policy changes to realize its full potential. For example, the study notes that Louisiana currently has different definitions for both “telehealth” and “telemedicine.” This not only creates confusion in the law, it also means that physicians who practice “telemedicine” cannot use some technology like “store-and-forward.” This technology allows medical data like x-rays or MRIs to be sent to medical experts for later viewing.

Other similarly small changes to law recommended in the study can substantially increase access, and not just via telehealth. While the various governing bodies of medical professionals have been granted the ability to promulgate rules to easily allow out-of-state medical professionals to practice in Louisiana, most boards have yet to do so.

Of the 25 health providers examined in the study, only speech-language pathologists and audiologists have created an out-of-state registration process. Similarly, only seven of the professions have seen their boards promulgate rules regarding telehealth.

During the pandemic, many of the requirements for telehealth and out-of-state medical professionals were lifted via emergency order. Since that time, the state has issued 729 permits for out-of-state licenses, 1,205 telemedicine permits, and 394 telehealth permits. Mandating that these boards must create such rules would make it easier for medical professionals to move to Louisiana or practice here via telehealth.

Finally, the Pelican Institute and Reason Foundation study found that the growing field of telepharmacy could also create more access in rural areas.

As various bills move through the legislative session regarding telehealth and healthcare access, the Pelican Institute will work to inform lawmakers about the need to expand healthcare access and the best avenues to accomplish this goal.

Eric Peterson is the Director of the Pelican Center for Technology and Innovation. He is a graduate of Tulane University and currently resides in New Orleans.