A growing number of people with chronic conditions also lack internet access

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Lack of internet access coupled with high rates of chronic disease plague more than 60% of rural counties.

More than 36 million people live in counties across the United States where high rates of chronic disease are exacerbated by low rates of broadband connectivity.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) refers to this trend as a “double-burden” of need, and according to new data released (PDF) by the agency’s Connect2Health Task Force, those numbers are increasing. Between 2014 and 2015, one million additional Americans lived in counties with “double burden.”

Unsurprisingly, 60% of rural counties saw the highest rates of chronic illness coupled with the lowest rates of broadband access and adoption. The FCC highlighted (PDF) specific counties in Alabama, Arkansas and Arizona where this discrepancy was particularly troubling.

For example, just 21% of the population in Marion County in Alabama have access to broadband, while 19% of the population have diabetes and 38% are obese. Preventable hospitalizations in that county are nearly double the national average.

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Large provider groups like the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) have urged the FCC to offer more federal funding to rural healthcare facilities as means of improving high-speed internet access that is critical to integrating telehealth and digital health tools. The American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) said access to broadband “is, or soon will become, a social determinant of health.”

“The mapping platform shines a critical spotlight on the need for broadband health solutions in rural and digitally-isolated counties where physician shortages are more than double the national average,” Michele Ellison, chair of the Connect2Health FCC Task Force, said in a release. “It also demonstrates the importance of initiatives to promote broadband infrastructure deployment.”

RELATED: AMIA sees internet access as a social determinant of health

Meanwhile, the FCC appears willing to restructure broadband policies to close the broadband gap in healthcare after asking for input from industry stakeholders. In a statement (PDF), FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the “broadband health picture remains bleak” for far too many rural and underserved communities, but the agency wants to change that.

“Armed with the robust input from stakeholders across the country along with the data and information that is pouring into the Commission in response to the recent Connect2Health Public Notice, the Task Force staff are tirelessly working to make recommendations to the Commission about how best to architect broadband health policy to meet the needs of rural and underserved Americans,” she said.