Dr. Karen S. Rheuban: Expanding broadband will improve America’s health

Want healthier Americans? Any prescription needs to include better access to broadband connections.

New analysis from the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect2Health Task Force confirms what I and other telehealth providers have long suspected: a lack of broadband access is tied to worse health outcomes and a lack of access to health care, especially in rural communities.

According to the FCC, close to half of U.S. counties are “double burden” counties — areas with high levels of chronic diseases and needs for more broadband.

More than 36 million Americans live in these double-burden counties, said the FCC, where the average broadband access rate is 55 percent. The FCC found that in these counties, the prevalence of obesity is 19 percent above the national average, while the prevalence of diabetes is 25 percent above the national average.

A lack of internet access is also connected with challenges in seeing a doctor. “Most of the counties with the worst access to primary care physicians are also the least connected,” according to the FCC’s analysis. (These and other findings can be seen on the FCC’s updated Mapping Broadband Health in America platform.)

Expanding broadband connections can make telehealth a viable way to improve both care access and patient outcomes.

Telehealth tools have been shown to lessen the effects of health-care worker shortages and facilitate care by the right provider at the right time. These same technologies also can provide home monitoring services that help patients become more involved and do a better job of managing their own chronic illnesses without leaving home.

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At the University of Virginia Health System, for instance, we have leveled the playing field for rural patients receiving care in our telestroke network.

Aided by high-bandwidth broadband connections between hospitals and supported by high-quality educational programs, we are able to provide access to specially trained stroke neurologists and clot-busting medications at the same rates as we do for patients from the Charlottesville area who seen at UVa’s emergency department.

We have also used telehealth to prevent re-admissions once patients are discharged from the hospital. A two-year study found that through a remote monitoring partnership with Locus Health, UVa saw a 40 percent reduction in re-admissions for Medicare patients with select conditions who enrolled in the program.

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Through the Universal Service Fund, the FCC offers several programs that can improve access to broadband services. The Universal Service Fund has helped us obtain lower-cost broadband services to connect partner health-care facilities.

Another FCC program can help connect low-income patients to health-care providers from their homes by helping make communications services (such as phone and internet services) more affordable.

Preserving and expanding these programs to increase broadband connections will help ensure that all patients, no matter where they live, can access high-quality health care.

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