Report shows poor broadband impacts telehealth innovations

ELIZABETH LEPRO
Posted 6/5/19

REGION — Telehealth may be the new wave in community medicine, but it won’t do much for rural communities without reliable broadband connections. According to the National Rural Health …

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Report shows poor broadband impacts telehealth innovations

Posted

REGION — Telehealth may be the new wave in community medicine, but it won’t do much for rural communities without reliable broadband connections.

According to the National Rural Health Association, fewer than 10% of U.S. physicians practice in rural communities, where 25% of Americans live. Yet, as Americans age and become sick in rural communities—at rates faster than their urban counterparts—telemedicine has been proposed as an innovative way to allow rural Americans access to healthcare. Its use has grown by nearly 40% in the last seven years, according to the American Hospital Association.

Though the association also notes that about 76% of American hospitals use video and other technology to connect with patients, it also says that adequate steps have not been taken to ensure that the use of technology in health systems is accessible across the country. “The FCC’s Rural Health Care Program supports broadband adoption, but it is administratively burdensome and provides an insufficient level of subsidy for remote healthcare providers,” a fact sheet from the American Hospital Association reads. 

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University recently showed just how impactful restricted broadband use is in rural healthcare. The researchers used a healthcare provider database and Google Maps to figure out if counties had adequate access to primary-care physicians and psychiatrists, as well as data from the FCC to measure whether they had broadband access at a sufficient speed of 25 megabits per second—needed to support video-based telehealth visits. (See page 5 for a story on broadband speeds in rural PA counties).

Fewer than 10%of U.S. physicians practice in rural communities, where 25% of Americans live.

The study found that broadband rates decreased as counties became more rural. Counties with inadequate access to primary care physicians and/or psychiatrists generally had poorer broadband penetration rates. For example, the broadband penetration rate in the most rural counties was 62.4% if

primary-care physician access was adequate, compared with 38.6% if it was inadequate, according to the study. That relationship was similar for the relationship between broadband and psychiatrists, according to

FierceHealth.com.

“This observation suggests that the inadequate broadband infrastructure in rural areas prevents telemedicine from mitigating the barriers to care associated with physician shortages and may explain the low rates of telemedicine use among rural Medicare enrollees,” the researchers said in the report.

In Wayne County, Wayne Memorial Hospital has been piloting telehealth programs to reach more rural residents, as well as tele-neonatalogy to provide direct, real-time access to neonatal specialists at other hospitals. Sullivan County Public Health Services has also operated telehealth initiatives in the past, including a health buddy appliance that allowed users to send their health information directly to public health from their homes.

Broadband access in Sullivan County has been the focus of several legislators and the ire of community members and business owners frustrated with lacking connection. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Broadband for All” intiative invested $500 million in securing better access in 2015.

This most recent study did not address smart phone ownership, as Heather Landi points out in an article on the study for FierceHealth.com. Researchers acknowledged that telemedicine may be delivered via personal phones. 

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