Rapides library offers telehealth to a town without doctors

Three women sit and stand in front of a small desk with screens on it.
J.W. McDonald Memorial Branch Manager Gail Goldberg, Rapides Parish Public Library Director Celise Reech-Harper and Assistant Branch Manager Tasheena Coker at the public library in Glenmora, La., on Thursday, March 29, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

In Glenmora, there are still some markers that remind visitors and residents alike of the small town’s prosperous history, fueled — like much of Central and North Louisiana’s economy in the first half of the 20th century — by lumber and oil. 

There’s the historic Pringle movie theater with its weathered art deco facade marking the end of the town’s main drag to the east. Empty storefronts dot the once vibrant downtown. There’s no real grocery store — save for a Family Dollar and a few gas stations with expanded offerings — and only one full service restaurant.

There’s no hospital, no clinic, no doctor’s office. 

The facade of an old movie theater with an awning and an unlit neon sign.
The Pringle movie theater, built in 1942, marks the end of downtown in Glenmora, La., on Thursday, March 29, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

Currently, the only medical services in town are provided to students of the local public school by way of a school-based clinic. But a new initiative by the Rapides Parish Public Library system is hoping to expand access to medical care for residents of Glenmora and other towns like it across the rural parish. Their solution? Telehealth. 

With the help of a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, the local public library system has deployed telehealth kiosks to branches across the parish, offering basic equipment like blood pressure measuring cuffs and scales for residents to use in their telehealth appointments. 

So far, the uptake has been minimal, but Rapides Parish Public Library Director Celise Reech-Harper hopes that offering the service can lay the groundwork for providing access to medical care in a new era for rural communities like Glenmora.

“Telehealth is a growing and expanding option and we want our people to be ready for it,” Reech-Harper said. 

Health advocates have pointed to telehealth as a solution for the lack of access to medical care in rural parishes. In Louisiana, approximately 73% of the population lives in what the federal government has termed a Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area, with rural areas making up the lion’s share of the underserved. 

Multiple screens and medical equipment are arranged on a small, high desk.
A Telehealth kiosk, deployed at the end of last year, stands inside the meeting room of the public library branch in Glenmora, La., on Thursday, March 29, 2024.Photo by Alena Maschke

Nationwide, rural parts communities are home to 20% of the population, but only 11% of the physicians, according to a 2020 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

Rapides Parish, categorized “partially rural,” is designated a shortage area in all three axes measured by federal authorities: primary care, dental care and mental health. 

Rural libraries have a history of stepping in where access to modern necessities fall short. Using them for telehealth is a natural fit, library staff point out. 

“I’ve been told over the years how important our library service is,” said Gail Goldberg, director of the Glenmora branch. When personal computers and access to the internet spread in the late 1990s, the branch hosted computer classes for local residents, offering a first point of contact with the new technology.

“Without us, they would not have the access that they have. We have so many things here that started here,” Goldberg said. 

A woman peers through the blinds of a window, pointing to a place outside.
J.W. McDonald Branch Manager Gail Goldberg points to the site where a new doctor’s office is currently being built, across an alley from the library, in Glenmora, La., on Thursday, March 29, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

Even access to reliable internet is still a challenge for residents of some of the surrounding communities, where internet access is limited or slow. “It’s hard, very hard. Some of the internet services do not reach,” said assistant branch manager Tasheena Coker, who lives in the village of Plainview, about 15 miles west of Glenmora. 

For residents of communities like hers, Coker said, the library serves as a place to access reliable internet. “They can come and get things done that they need to get done,” she said. As for telehealth, she added, “we’re hoping that as more people get familiar with it, more people will come.”

It’s innovative solutions like the telehealth kiosks, that will enable towns like Glenmora to provide its residents with the services they need, while also enjoying the character of rural life that many of them hold dear, freshman Glenmora councilwoman Alexa Ashford said. 

A brick sign stands in front of a set of railroad tracks on which empty cargo trailers roll by.
A freight train rolls by behind the sign of the Rapides Parish Library in Glenmora, La., on Thursday, March 29, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

“Rural means that we don’t always fit the mold,” Ashford said. “We want to be able to stand on our own feet and not have to leave town for the things that we need.”

Meanwhile, Ashford and others in the community have worked to bring back some of the other amenities that they hope will entice future generations of Glenmorans to stay or at least return to visit. 

Together with students of the local high school, she led efforts to reopen the Pringle theater. After a 10-year hiatus, the movie theater reopened in 2019. Because of its outdated equipment, the theater currently shows reruns of older movies, but with the help of donations, Ashford hopes that sometime soon, the theater will be able to purchase a new projector that would allow them to show current films.

And soon, there will be in-person access to medical services as well. A new doctor’s office is currently being built on the town’s main street, just a stone’s throw from the library.