A $418 million pilot program to extend broadband networks to rural healthcare providers has been deemed a success by the Federal Communications Commission, particularly in fostering broadband-enabled telemedicine programs.
In a staff report issued Monday, the Federal Communications Commission says the Rural Health Care Pilot Program launched in 2006 improved the quality and reduced the cost of delivering healthcare in rural areas through the use of telemedicine, which reduced patient travel time and expense, increased revenue for rural clinics and hospitals, allowed exchange of electronic health records and training of rural medical personnel. The report adds that:
- Forming consortiums to administer broadband networks is more efficient, fosters coordinated networks of providers, and enables cost-saving bulk-buying and competitive bidding.
- Rural provider networks work best when connected with a large, urban medical center able to provide both medical and technical expertise, as well as administrative support.
- Because most providers don't have the technical expertise to manage broadband networks and don't want to own the networks, rural providers in most of the pilot projects achieved success by purchasing services from a third party.
- Universal service support helps rural healthcare providers operating on thin margins take advantage of broadband.
The pilot project, which paid up to 85 percent of broadband construction and deployment costs, also prompted providers to purchase faster bandwidth connections--10 Mbps or faster, compared with 3 Mbps or less under the FCC's permanent Rural Health Care program.
As of January, 2,107 providers were due to receive $217 million in universal service support through the pilot program, according to the report. The program supports 50 active projects in 38 states and three territories. Projects range from fewer than 10 providers to more than 150 served by broadband networks.
Just a year ago, the FCC's universal service support program and efforts to promote telehealth were slammed by the American Telemedicine Association, which charged that the commission failed to follow through on several projects that could improve telehealth delivery. The FCC was spending less than 20 percent of the funds it had slated for healthcare, ATA director Jonathan Linkous complained in a July 2011 letter.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also helps fund telemedicine projects in rural America, with the latest round of grants announced in June. But broadband access remains a key component of successful telemedicine projects, and some rural practitioners complain slow expansion of broadband networks leave their hospitals and clinics unconnected.