BACKGROUND: Perioperative telemedicine use has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and may improve access to surgical care. However, studies assessing outcomes in populations at risk for digital-health disparities are lacking. We sought to characterize the pre- and postoperative outcomes for rural patient populations being assessed for hernia repair and abdominal wall reconstruction with telehealth. METHODS: Patients undergoing telehealth evaluation from March 2020 through May 2021 were identified. Rurality was identified by zip code of residence. Rural and urban patients were compared based on demographics, diagnosis, treatment plan, and visit characteristics and outcomes. Downstream care use related to supplementary in-person referral, and diagnostic testing was assessed. RESULTS: Three hundred-seventy-three (196 preoperative, 177 postoperative) telehealth encounters occurred during the study period (rural: 28% of all encounters). Rural patients were more likely to present with recurrent or incisional hernias (90.0 vs 72.7%, p = 0.02) and advanced comorbidities (American Society of Anesthesiologists status score > 2: 73.1 vs 52.1%, p = 0.009). Rural patients derived significant benefits related to time saved commuting, with median distances of 299 and 293 km for pre- and postoperative encounters, respectively. Downstream care use was 6.1% (N = 23) for additional in-person evaluations and 3.4% (N = 13) for further diagnostic testing, with no difference by rurality. CONCLUSIONS: Perioperative telehealth can safely be implemented for rural populations seeking hernia repair and may be an effective method for reducing disparities. Downstream care use related to additional in-person referral or diagnostic testing was minimally impacted in both the preoperative and postoperative settings. These findings suggest that rurality should not deter surgeons from providing telemedicine-based surgical consultation for hernia repair.
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