Broadband infrastructure can help plug some of the leaks in rural healthcare services. The result can be better healthcare access and an improved local economy.
Arrowhead Electric Cooperative built a fiber network in Cook County, Minnesota, a few years ago. “Our main healthcare facilities send patients home with medic alert-type devices and even tablets to monitor recovery and ensure communication thanks to fiber to home,” says Yusef Orest, head of membership services for the co-op. “Before the network, individuals had internet access but it wasn’t fast. Now, hospitals are increasing services at patients’ home and on-site. For example, they can perform ultrasounds and radiology scans and send results instantly to bigger hospitals for analysis.”
Rural communities can learn from small towns – some in metropolitan areas and some in less populated regions – that have made it their missions to use broadband to transform the nature of healthcare and telemedicine.
Telemedicine – the New Frontier
Kevin Short, general manager of Anza Electric Cooperative in California observes, “Telemedicine is the new frontier. I know several people who have to monitor their health continuously. Highspeed access is critical to their wellbeing and we are enabling that on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there seems to be no movement or entity that is bringing things together in some directed fashion.”
“We definitely realize that we’re bringing improved healthcare not to the future, but to today,” says Virginia Harman, VP of member relations at Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Colorado. “Especially in these rural areas, they historically have not had access to the great healthcare found in big hospitals. Telemedicine definitely enables that.”
To leverage the full potential of the technology, rural communities need to deploy broadband infrastructure that powers the array of software, devices, telemedicine technologies, medical treatments, and patient management processes. Many of these components, in turn, are waiting for changes in government policies, insurance reform, and medical professionals adopting technologies.
The age of the doctors and of potential patients seems to be a challenge, however, once the network is built. Telemedicine is complex and has a learning curve. A common assumption is that newly graduated doctors and other healthcare professionals who easily adapt to the technology prefer the big lights of the city to staying in rural hometown. Some of their older colleagues are resistant to learning about telemedicine.
Marshalltown, Iowa, Mayor James Lowrance feels the challenge is not so much the difficulty with patients learning new technology; it’s the fear of losing touch (literally) with their physicians. “We have an aging populations in rural communities who insist on in-person visits with their physicians, and are reluctant to use video,” says Mayor Lowrance. “On the other hand, many seniors trust their doctors, but from an abundance of caution they like to get second opinions. A video consult can save three hours of driving to a bigger hospital or to meet a specialist.”
Broadband Creates Rural Medical Hubs
Pioneering communities provide some valuable lessons. Loma Linda, California, is a town with about 23,000 people. With long-range planning and gig infrastructure, small towns in rural areas could emulate Loma Linda and become medical hubs to increase the quality medical care typically lacking in rural areas.
Loma Linda’s network helped 1) improve the financial health of existing medical facilities, 2) increase the number of healthcare facilities AND professionals, and 3) attract hospitality facilities for out-of-town guests visiting sick relatives. The town shifted from residential and business sales in 2009 to sell internet access services primarily to businesses, hospitals and small physician practices that connected their two or three offices.
The town’s healthcare institutions’ employees increased by 20% since 2009. More than 20,000 people work in that industry (the small city is adjacent to the much larger city of San Bernardino and is part of a metro area of about 2 million). There’s a hospital bed for every house in Loma Linda. Shifting the focus of broadband to modernizing healthcare was responsible for convincing the government to build a VA clinic in town that brought in 1,500 jobs and generates $500,000 annually in property taxes.
More broadband-related projects are in the works, says Konrad Bolowich, Loma Linda’s assistant city manager.
“Our hospitals are running several broadband-assisted pilot projects that have great potential for impacting rural hospitals,” he said. “One involves using telemetry in hotel rooms where patients can stay while physicians monitor them overnight after surgery or other medical procedure. Another pilot is testing how well robots can assist with monitoring and other routine non-critical tasks. I believe broadband will soon be able to assist with literally cradle-to-grave healthcare.”
In Danville, Virginia, their gig network connection to the world creates a virtual universe of medical knowledge and talent. Danville is twice as large as Loma Linda, but is in a much less urban setting. Danville has about 43,000 residents and is the center of the Danville Micropolitan Statistical Area. As tobacco farming died out in the state in the early part of the century, towns shrunk with the withering employment opportunities. Those in the population who remained faced serious challenges using their skillsets in other industries.
The Danville Regional Medical Center is one of the town’s largest employers. They have several clinics around town that move a lot of data among the facilities. The high-speed network produces a quality and quantity of medical services that make Danville Regional a major draw for businesses looking to re-locate to the town.
The Medical Center opened a new facility and partnered with the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine for its residency program. This subsequently draws a notable number of younger doctors to the area – some of whom may stay and open their own practices, leaders hope.
A community can take the raw ingredients of a high-speed network, virtual reality, streaming video and audio, telemedicine applications, and healthcare professionals to create a medical hub that rivals Loma Linda and Danville. Besides transforming healthcare for the 21st century and creating a healthier community, this is good for broadband adoption, new-company recruiting, employment, and stabilizing or increasing rural population.
Creating a healthcare hub also could lead to medical research, which requires access bandwidth to execute. Such research projects can directly or indirectly lead to millions of dollars for a community. Geographical, environmental, or demographic considerations can make rural areas potential research test beds if they can build broadband to facilitate data gathering.
Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of Building the Gigabit City. His latest analyst’s report is “The Co-op’s Broadband Plan for Success.”