W.Va. rural health group expands healthcare data portal

With a surge in health insurance enrollment and a low number of primary care doctors, West Virginia's healthcare landscape may seem difficult to navigate, but an expanding initiative through the West Virginia Rural Health Association is trying to make things easier.

The WVRHA's Health Portal, created more than a year ago and featured on its website, allows users to search a database of medical specialties, as well as find the number of providers in an area or the driving distance to a clinic, medical office or hospital. The WVRHA recently received a grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation effective July 1 to expand its portal to add 13 medical disciplines, including psychiatry, ophthalmology, gynecology and social work. 

According to Debrin Jenkins, WVRHA executive director, the portal is designed to offer up the sort of data that can be useful not only to patients, but to businesses, the government, and other healthcare providers. 

"Anybody seeking data for things like economic development -- all of this information is a one-stop shop," Jenkins said. "Previously, we couldn't plan for what we needed, because we didn't know what we had. There was no way to access this data in one place." 

The WVRHA also plans to schedule 10 free training sessions throughout the state to train citizens and professionals on how to effectively use the portal, Jenkins said. The WVRHA will publish a 2014-15 workforce analysis summary, which will include more detailed information on the data that can be found through the portal.

"We have this perfect storm coming. It's wonderful that we've got more than 130,000 people with insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but before we were short on providers, and now we're even shorter," she said. "This is a way for people to see what's really happening on a very specific level."

Ann Peton, director of the National Center for the Analysis of Healthcare Data, said the West Virginia portal is one of the most extensive that the NCAHD has designed.

"There are two tools on the portal that are different than any other portal we've set up, and they were built based on the requests of users," Peton said. 

One is the drive-distance tool, which allows users to click on two points on the map and receive the driving distance and estimated driving time. The other, called the service-area tool, allows users to choose a spot on the map and gauge what health services are available to them within a certain distance or time radius.

"It's a really useful tool if you're looking to get a sense of the patient population or workforce within a certain drive distance, or simply the amount of time it takes, which is important for a lot of patients, because it may be difficult for them to travel long distances," Peton said.

The portal can be found by visiting www.wvrha.org and clicking the "West Virginia Health Data Portal" link.

The WVHRA, a non-profit organization that focuses on advocacy and policy development for rural healthcare in the state, will host its 22nd annual West Virginia Rural Health Conference at the Lakeview Resort in Morgantown Oct. 15-17. For more information, contact 304-890-7017 or email debrinwvrha@gmail.com.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189. 

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