Telehealth in rural fire departments could help address health care challenges

Environmental portrait of WSU Pharmacy Student Amanda Whitehead near the Fire Station in Athol Idaho, Wednesday, February 28, 2024.

By Will Ferguson, WSU News & Media Relations

Driving 50 miles or more through wintry conditions to get to a pharmacy is a risky challenge that for disabled and elderly people living in remote locations often isn’t possible. Washington State University pharmacy student Amanda Whitehead, part of the university’s Rural Health Initiative, is exploring the feasibility of setting up telehealth stations in rural fire stations to help bring many health care services to a location much closer.

Whitehead is currently laying the groundwork for what she hopes will become a network of remote telehealth stations in rural counties, such as Pend Oreille and Stevens County, Washington. She is interviewing with regional fire chiefs about the feasibility of the project in the region, where she and her family currently live.

The ultimate goal of the research is to not only facilitate health care access for disabled veterans, the elderly, and other vulnerable people in remote locations but also to make it easier for them to get to a hospital in an emergency.

“Going to a fire station that is maybe 10 miles from your house as opposed to driving 50 miles to a nearby city in the middle of winter is far more realistic for a lot of these individuals, who often can’t drive and don’t have reliable internet or cell access,” Whitehead said. “In addition, people in rural communities already trust and depend on the fire (service) for pretty much everything in an emergency. So, setting up telehealth stations in these locations seemed like a natural and effective extension of the services that are already provided.”

Whitehead, 35, is no stranger to the unique challenges of providing adequate healthcare to people living in remote locations. She grew up in a firefighter family just outside of Eatonville, Washington, a town with a population of roughly 3,000 people about a 90-minute drive south of SeaTac Airport.

During her 20s, she served as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician for South Pierce Fire and Rescue, where she often found herself driving down dirt roads to a trailer or a small house in the middle of the woods. Cell service and internet were often non-existent, and people with diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses faced major obstacles to getting basic medication and healthcare-related advice.

“It was heartbreaking to see so many of these people struggling with their day-to-day lives because they couldn’t get to the closest medical facility, which was often a 45-minute to 1.5-hour drive away,” she said. “It stuck in my mind as a problem I want to help address.”

Whitehead’s original, long-term career plan was to follow in her father and grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a career firefighter. However, that dream changed after she gave birth to her first daughter, Ava.

“After having my first daughter my already injured hip had gotten worse and I had further injured it during a mandatory physical test,” she said. “After several months of physical therapy, I found out that I was going to have to pick a different career as I wasn’t going to be able to pass the physical exam required to be a firefighter.”

Whitehead then decided to pursue her other dream career path after she and her family moved to North Idaho where she began pursuing her Doctor of Pharmacy degree in 2021 at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Spokane.

She said going through pharmacy school with two young daughters (ages 5 and 7) is challenging but worth the effort. When asked how she finds the time to also pursue an independent research project investigating the feasibility of telehealth stations, she laughed and replied that the end result will hopefully be worth the effort.

“Most people don’t realize the wide variety of services people can get from visiting with a pharmacist or other healthcare providers via telehealth or in person,” she said. “My ultimate hope is that my research project could transition into a career that would allow me to remotely practice a profession I have grown to love while also serving my rural community and keeping my connection to the fire service.”