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Tying Telehealth to Better Rural Health Outcomes

A new FCC resource compares health disparities to broadband connectivity and Internet use across the country. Will it be a tool for telehealth expansion as well?

By Eric Wicklund

- Federal officials have unveiled an online database designed to link broadband availability and use with health outcomes. It’s the latest step in an effort to connect rural and underserved communities with the tools to promote healthier lifestyles and reduce chronic diseases.

The Federal Communications Commission’s “Mapping Broadband Health in America” tool, developed by the two-year-old Connect2Health Task Force with data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the FCC, highlights states and counties with low broadband availability and Internet use, then compares health measures like diabetes, obesity, disabilities and physician access.

“By allowing users to ask and answer questions about broadband and health at the county and census block levels, the tool provides critical data that can help drive broadband health policies and connected health solutions for this critical space,” the FCC said in a press release accompanying the tool.

“This is a groundbreaking effort at the nexus of broadband and health,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn added. “The map makes clear that there are some communities that bear a double burden… . (T)hey have the lowest connectivity and highest need. Today, we identify challenges and point to sustainable and innovative solutions.”

Officials also offered examples of what the tool can produce. For example, in counties where connectivity is limited (60 percent lack access to broadband and more than 60 percent lack basic Internet connections at home), the rate of diabetes is 35 percent higher and the rate of obesity is 25 percent higher. Also, 60 percent of Americans living in rural locations have reduced access to broadband and a higher chance of getting a chronic disease, while only 5 percent of urban residents meet those conditions.

Politico took that one step further, with these statistics:

  • 71 of 82 Mississippi counties have Internet adoption rates of less than 60 percent and diabetes rates greater than the national average of 9.7 percent.
  • Almost half of Alabama has a broadband rate of less than 60 percent, and in those counties the obesity rate is greater than 30 percent, compared to a national average of 27.4 percent.
  • In Oklahoma, 67 of 77 counties can’t meet the national average of 73.3 primary care doctors per 100,000 residents, and more than 60 percent of the state’s residents have slower-than-average broadband speeds.

To draw attention to those areas most in need, the FCC also released two lists: the Priority 100, or the top 100 counties most in need of healthcare services, and the Rural 100, the top 100 counties where connectivity is weakest.

Organizations like the American Telemedicine Association have long pointed to broadband connectivity as a barrier to extending telehealth services into rural locations. Last December, a coalition of healthcare organizations and telehealth advocates petitioned the FCC to revise the Rural Healthcare Program and its Healthcare Connect Fund to, among other things, increase incentives to help rural healthcare providers access affordable broadband necessary to support telehealth, support more remote patient monitoring efforts and help launch coalitions that enable safety-net healthcare providers to “participate in the unfolding broadband revolution.

“The need amongst many rural healthcare providers for access to high quality broadband access is profound,” wrote Thomas Leary, vice president of government relations for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, and Personal Connected Health Alliance Vice President Robert Havasy in a letter to the FCC. “This need for wireless and wireline broadband access represents a critical component to furthering a nationwide network optimized for tomorrow’s high-quality healthcare delivery systems. Benefits of expanded broadband access include the ability to conduct secure high quality eVisits such as telemedicine and expanded remote patient monitoring within the home.”

In largely rural states like Maine, broadband issues are keeping healthcare providers from reaching patients most in need of their services.

"The technology is there, in many ways, although the big gap is in broadband,” Maine Senator and former governor Angus King said during an August 2015 telehealth roundtable at the University of Maine. “It really doesn't work unless you have pretty good broadband connections and the very people we're trying to help the most are those that are in rural areas where broadband coverage is spotty.”

Dig Deeper:

Broadband: The Missing Link to Rural Telehealth Success

Quality Broadband an Important Tool for mHealth

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