When Deanna Larson thinks about Avera eCARE® she sees endless possibility.

How can virtual health care connect providers to patients where they’re at for easier access? The possibilities are endless, whether it’s seeing a diabetes specialist or meeting with a counselor through an Employee Assistance Program.

“Once you understand and really pick up on the impact eCARE can have in the delivery of care for patients it’s such an eye opener,” said Larson, CEO of Avera eCARE. “There are so many opportunities and we can impact so many lives.”

Larson was recently named American Telemedicine Association Woman of the Year for that type of big sky thinking. It’s also what’s helped eCARE flourish over the past 25 years from a small pilot project within Avera to covering more than 400 sites in 17 states. eCARE is now the world’s most extensive network for virtual health care delivery, using real-time, two-way video equipment to connect patients to providers without having to travel.

Larson started her career in health care as an RN working in states across the Midwest, including Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic. She came to Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center for a leadership role 25 years ago and eventually started working with Avera eCARE.

We recently sat down to talk with Larson about her growth as an executive and the role of telemedicine in health care.

What do you want people to know about eCARE?

Larson: I want them to know that we’ve developed and nurtured a product in a rural geography that has so much exponential power to be navigated into urban and global settings. Because of our Midwest ethics to adapt and make things work we’re showing the world that there’s a different way to delivery health care that’s saving money and really making a difference.

What is the future of telemedicine?

Larson: I’ve watched eCARE grow from Specialty Clinic to ICU, Emergency and to include 10 service areas. It’s opening a whole new world and I think it will continue to expand. I believe patients are recognizing the simple access points telemedicine creates and conversations available to them to talk with providers. Insurance payors are also starting to recognize it as a cost effective to have earlier intervention with these types of provider conversations. If you have easy access to call and talk to a provider about an issue that earlier intervention could save a hospitalization.

Can you give an example of potential growth?

Larson: One of our new service lines is School Health, which connects students to school nurses. For instance, if a child with asthma or diabetes needs help managing it, can we be there with the student and also have a parent available by video or phone so the child and parent are both involved in the discussion? Could we also take that level of care to the daycare setting? There is so much opportunity to take our highly educated workforce available to more patients wherever they are – it doesn’t just have to be in rural settings.

It sounds like a complete shift in how we think about health care.

Larson: It recalls a book by Eric Topol called, “The Patient Will See You Now.” We’re asking where is the patient and where do we need to meet them. On the other hand, if you’re a rheumatologist or neurologist there is no need for some of the specialties in less densely populated areas. How do we make patients available to these providers as well? It can benefit both the patient and clinicians.

What about new technology such as home checkups or artificial intelligence?

Larson: A large part of telehealth is the datasets that are being collected with AI. These are being developed to make sure patients are appropriately triaged into the right space to see someone on video, in person or perhaps the hospital. Those AI algorithms are going to become a very important element of how we see patients in the future so that telehealth just becomes part of the care delivery model.

What are some of the obstacles to making that happen?

Larson:  Our first 25 years in telemedicine was all about getting people to accept it and understand the novelty and wow factor. The next 25 years will be all about integrating it into the care system. No matter where you are, if you have heart attack on rural road or a mountaintop, you deserve the highest quality of care. Telemedicine can be part of the delivery at every level.

Making sure third party payors recognize these interventions are billable events and should be covered is a challenge. Oftentimes Medicare pays for quite a bit of telemedicine but still requires the recipient to be in a rural area. If it’s going to be integrated into our care delivery model that patient should be able to be in more locations where virtual care is possible.

The AveraNow app has shown us the consumer is willing to pay cash for these visits. That says a lot of them want easier access to communicate and interact with clinicians.

You’re not only a female CEO but also a leader in the medical field. What advice would you give to women looking for leadership roles in STEM fields?

Larson: I’m passionate about the subject and I feel strongly about telemedicine. I’m doing something that’s really fulfilling and gives me the drive to be comfortable at any table to discuss the important messages that need to be heard. Aligning your work with something you understand and doing something you can make a difference with really gives you the voice you need to take a place at any executive table. If you feel strongly, you will be heard.