Rural Americans are going online for a variety of health-related services, but better availability of broadband internet is necessary to meet future telehealth demand, a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report suggests.

Per its research, the USDA analyzed data from the July 2015 Current Population Survey that included 130,000 people age 15 and older and of those, 19 percent researched health issues online. Urban residents were somewhat more likely than rural residents to conduct online searches, at 20 percent versus 17 percent, researchers said.

Rural residents also were behind urban residents in regard to paying medical bills online, communicating with providers and performing other online health maintenance tasks (7 percent vs. 11 percent) and in online health monitoring (1.3 percent vs. 2.5 percent).

Telehealth is rising in popularity for rural areas because of doctor shortages, hospital closings and lack of reliable transportation options. "It allows people to be more engaged in their own health while facilitating care of minor ailments and monitoring of chronic conditions," researchers said.

Per the USDA, smartphones are more common than personal computers in the general population, but PCs are more commonly used by rural residents who conduct telehealth activities. Seventy-five percent to 79 percent of rural people conducting health practices had smartphones, while up to 89 percent of rural individuals conducting health practices had a PC.

Lack of internet service in the home, whether by choice or due to lack of availability, did not deter everyone from conducting online health research: 13 percent of rural residents and 16 percent of urban residents who did not own a desktop computer still conducted online health research.

"Telehealth users will likely require high-quality broadband service to fully access all telehealth services in the future, because health providers continue to improve their telehealth offerings and the new services (such as virtual patient visits) require high-quality broadband service," the report stated.

In regard to greater household incomes, the adoption rate for telehealth activities increased, too. Online health research, however, posed an exception: use of online health research did not increase by individuals with household incomes greater than around $50,000. Of rural residents, 17 percent conducted online research vs. 20 percent of urban residents.

Rural residents were uniformly less likely to conduct online research than their urban counterparts, and even rural residents among the highest income group were less likely than the national urban average to research health issues online suggests that rural residency may provide a physical or cultural drawback with respect to this telehealth activity.

Women were more likely than men to conduct online health research, in both rural and urban areas. Rural women were less likely to conduct online research than urban women and rural men less likely to conduct online research than urban men.

Also, owning a PC increased the chance an individual did online research, but 16 percent of urban residents and 13 percent of rural residents who did not own a PC still conducted online research. Among those who did not possess a mobile phone, 10 percent of urban residents and 8 percent of rural residents still conducted online research.

For online health maintenance, access to technology was a more significant factor than for online health research: a PC owner was twice as likely as a non-owner to conduct online health maintenance, although, again, many non-owners still found resources to do so.

Most individuals conducting online health monitoring had smart phones and PCs. As the online health monitoring system evolves, home PCs, which are critical elements in the current trial runs, may become more necessary.

"Still, a lot of monitoring can be done with a smart phone (with all the consequences of using a smaller screen) or, as is commonly practiced, by using a dedicated communication device that mediates the monitoring device’s connection to the Internet," the researchers reported.

"Resolving the challenges to providing rural health care may be vital to ensuring continued rural growth and prosperity. Rural telehealth, which has rapidly integrated with Internet technologies, may pose one solution," the authors stated. "Although telehealth remains in its infancy with relatively low rates of regular use, those rates will likely increase as service and technology continue to improve and people become aware of the improvements."