Telehealth improves access to sexual assault nurse examiners in rural areas

Posted at 11:58 AM, Mar 08, 2023

As if sexual assault wasn't traumatic enough, imagine having to drive hours to get treatment. That can sometimes be the case for people who live in rural areas, but advanced technology is changing that.

Amanda Shelley is a forensic nurse who examines survivors of sexual assault in Eagle County, Colorado. It's a county deep in the Rocky Mountains.

"We literally are filling people's scalps, we're looking inside of their ears, we're doing a really good assessment of their eyes, looking in every single direction,” Shelley said. “When we get a call from a patient that's coming in, we call telehealth right away.”

A program called TeleSANE was brought to Eagle County in May of 2021.

“We're in such a rural community that we don't see thousands of patients a year," Shelley said. "And so this really just gives our providers and our nurses that second set of eyes.”

With the survivor’s consent, they connect with a second medical professional via a private video chat. The collaboration and access to advanced technology allows victims to have the same access to resources as patients in urban areas.

Before, survivors in Eagle County had to travel hours down a mountain pass to get the care they needed.

Holly Kasper-Blank helps set up victims with trauma-informed behavioral health services at Bright Future Foundation. The foundation is a partner in the TeleSANE program.

“Either they didn't have transportation, or they were worried about the roads, and the time commitment to go over an hour out of the county was a real challenge for most people," Kasper-Blank said. "And what we were seeing is that if we weren't ready to help them get the services in time, sometimes they would lose their either motivation or they just they wouldn't have time to address it later.”

Kasper-Blank says survivors of sexual assault are given both medical and behavioral care. The nurse examiners collect evidence for possible criminal prosecution, and the social workers provide them with trauma-informed care.

“Today we talked with someone just about changing the locks, and sometimes it's involving law enforcement," Kasper-Blank said. "And then we have our emergency shelter. We serve about 30 families a year in an emergency shelter upstairs. Sometimes people stay involved with our behavioral health services, which is therapy, for up to two years at least.”

According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, studies show there’s a nationwide shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners in rural areas.

President Joe Biden recently signed a bill that provides $30 million to expand SANE services to rural, tribal and other underserved communities.

If you live in a rural area that still doesn't have SANE services, Kasper-Blank suggests you pursue collaboration.

“It takes a village and it takes time and planning and really considering who should be at the table," Kasper-Blank said. "I think we're continuing to figure out how we can best help survivors and who else can help be here with us.”