FCC broadband pilots improve care in rural areas

By Mary Mosquera
10:00 AM

Broadband networks are spurring improved quality and helping lower the cost of care in rural areas by reducing time to access of critical treatment and increasing the resources available to diagnose conditions.

By offering funds to providers to obtain broadband capacity, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has accelerated the use of tele-medicine and tele-health applications in rural areas, bridging the time, expense and transportation gaps associated with travel to distant locations for patient care, according to an agency analysis.

[See also: Broadband grants to help rural healthcare.]

Broadband networks can enable the transmission and sharing of medical images, electronic health records (EHRs) and remote consultations and training of rural medical personnel.

FCC established the rural healthcare pilot program in 2006 to support 50 projects in 38 states and territories. The $418 million program covers about 85 percent of the cost of construction and deployment of broadband networks that connect participating providers in rural and urban areas.

The five largest projects are statewide networks in California, Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia. These networks are on target to receive funds to connect over 800 providers, according to the FCC.

For example, the Palmetto State Providers Network in South Carolina has saved $18 million in Medicaid costs over 18 months conducting tele-psychiatry consultations.

The Geisinger Health System network offers tele-stroke services for neurology patients within minutes compared with hours. “For stroke victims, instant access to specialized care can be life-saving,” said the report, which was released Aug. 13. 

The providers in Geisinger’s pilot project in Pennsylvania participate in a health information exchange that links 53 hospitals and 9,000 physicians, who use certified electronic health records (EHRs).

[See also: Rural hospitals get technology boost.]

In South Dakota, the Heartland Unified Broadband Network (HUBNet) has put in place electronic intensive care unit (e-ICU) services, the use of which has saved $1.2 million in transfer expenses over 30 months, according to the report.

Among the best practices that the higher performing pilot programs found were:

  • Group applications are more efficient, enabling large and small rural providers to spread the administrative and network costs among a number of participants and to coordinate care
  • Urban providers are important members of rural healthcare networks by adding medical expertise, technical know-how and innovation
  • Most providers do not have the technical expertise to manage broadband networks so they acquire them from a third party through long-term or prepaid leases
  • Funding remains a barrier for rural providers so FCC universal service support allows them to access the broadband that is widely available and more affordable in more populated areas.