Industry Voices—How fiber broadband can help close the gaps in rural healthcare

Telehealth consultation
With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, rural healthcare providers can treat more patients in more and different ways and bring in additional revenue. (Getty/AndreyPopov)

Why are rural hospitals struggling today? A recent study (PDF) from Navigant found that 21% of hospitals across 43 states are at a high risk of closing.

This is indeed concerning for the 60 million Americans who live in rural communities and rely on these hospitals not just for healthcare, but for jobs and business recruitment and retention. If you believe that your zip code should not determine the quality of care you can receive or the type of business you can operate, read on, because that very zip code is too often the determining factor of the medical care accessible to rural residents and their families.

This lingering gap in rural healthcare comes at a time when technology and healthcare are moving toward better access for all thanks to a booming telehealth sector. Studies show that telehealthalready a $6 billion global industryis forecast to reach $19.5 billion by 2025. In the U.S. alone, telehealth is predicted to grow to $2.8 billion by that same year.

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RELATED: Report: Telehealth’s economic impact could have broad reach in rural communities

It sounds like a boon for rural communities: healthcare available when residents need it, even if they’re miles away from the nearest hospital. However, connecting rural hospitals with their rural patients via tablet or other smart device is next to impossible if the community does not have access to the necessary infrastructure to host the level of technology that drives telehealth services.

The missing link? Fiber broadband. As federal and state governments alike invest in bridging the digital divide in America’s rural communities, hospitals, too, should embrace fiber broadband to expand their services and enable telehealth.

Overcoming cost barriers

Of course, budgeting for and investing in high-speed broadband for hospitals that are already struggling financially can be a tough pill to swallow. Yet, your facility doesn’t need to carry the burden alone.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Healthcare Connect Fund to provide support for high-capacity broadband connectivity to eligible healthcare providers and encourage the formation of state and regional broadband healthcare provider networks. In Indiana, for example, the Healthcare Connect Fund led the Indiana Rural Health Association to form the Indiana Telehealth Network (ITN)—a network to improve the health and well-being of rural Indiana residents by utilizing a dedicated broadband health network.

RELATED: GAO: These are the rural hospitals most likely to close

Telehealth laws vary from state to state, as does how states facilitate the Healthcare Connect Fund. Information about the Healthcare Connect Fund can be found here. A report on “State Telehealth Laws and Reimbursement Policies” from the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) can be found here (PDF).

Benefits of modernized technology infrastructure

Telehealth doesn’t work without telecommunications, and the benefits of fiber broadband extend beyond remote patient care when hospitals invest in the necessary technology. Data centers, for example, allow multiple facilities in a healthcare system to communicate with one another instantaneously. No matter whether a patient is at home, in an outpatient center or in the county hospital, providers will be able to access a patient’s information quickly and seamlessly.

As noted in the Navigant study, one of the major factors contributing to the rural hospital crisis is “payer mix degradation.” As residents move out of rural communities, hospitals lose their patients. However, strong broadband in rural communities leads to strong economic development. As more people are able to access the internet-based jobs they desire in rural communities, hospitals will likely see more patients, and not just physically.

With increased broadband and a robust telehealth program, rural healthcare providers can treat more patients in more and different ways and bring in additional revenue.

The digital divide limits prosperity in rural communities across the country. Without reliable healthcare, these communities are even more at risk of fading away. It’s imperative that hospitals embrace and invest in fiber broadband capabilities to connect with more patients remotely to keep their communities healthy and thriving. If you build it, they will come.

James Turner is president and CEO of Intelligent Fiber Network (IFN) and serves on the board of managers for INDATEL

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