Industry Voices—We need to update healthcare IT infrastructure for the rural and underserved

rural area
For rural and underserved communities and institutions, the best way to pave a path for success is partnering with a provider that is experienced in delivering reliable, high-bandwidth, and scalable networks in rural areas at a reasonable rate. (Pixabay)

Technology holds massive potential to revolutionize the way healthcare and medicine is delivered to patients on a global scale. While the challenges of healthcare (e.g., high costs, inefficiencies, data security and management, and accessibility) remain an obstacle, telehealth gives us a glimpse into the next-generation world of wellness, allowing for new avenues of value delivery on all sides.

Regardless of location, age or other factors, all demographics stand to benefit from the services and products emerging at the intersection of health and IT.

This is exactly why the total digital health market is projected to reach over $115 billion in 2023 and the top-funded digital health categories—with analytics and telemedicine representing the top two—garnered upwards of $896 million in the first half of 2019 alone.

Yet, the promises of applications such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT) and beyond are only as powerful and far-reaching as the IT infrastructure and network connectivity that supports them. Currently, while there is a universal appeal to telehealth and other applications, there is not yet a universal path to implementation or preparedness. As a result, some regions and individuals are simply getting left behind.

A world of opportunities

The benefits of healthcare IT are vast and wide-ranging, boasting advantages for all involved. For the consumer, this new frontier offers improved patient satisfaction as a result of reduced wait times and more personalized care, provides convenience and accessibility based on scheduling and location, and beyond.

For the provider, new capabilities deliver increased revenue as a result of being able to see a greater number of patients. Telehealth applications also allow for more sustained contact with patients and ample opportunities to assess for emerging symptoms while improving workflow and organization.

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Meanwhile, AI, big data, and IoT are altering medicine as a whole by optimizing how institutions record, keep, analyze, and employ vital patient information. These applications work off of one another in a perpetual cycle: IoT devices collect data from millions of users which is then stored in the cloud and used to train and improve AI algorithms. These algorithms are then used to automate and manage IoT devices.

Yet, this complex and cutting-edge system is entirely dependent on one unassuming, yet undeniably vital component: fiber.

The challenges of equal adoption

As the foundational element to enabling these many use cases, adequate fiber infrastructure and network connectivity and capacity are vital to the success of telehealth and healthcare IT.

With more devices connecting every day (the number of connected devices worldwide is projected to reach a staggering 75.44 billion by 2025) and more information being amassed, stored and accessed from an expanding digital environment, unprepared and legacy networks simply cannot keep up. As a result, reliable, high-speed internet has become a form of gatekeeper for the next generation of medicine.

While more metropolitan areas with higher revenues and greater numbers of patients have better access to networks that can support telehealth initiatives, connectivity, unfortunately, stands as a barrier for many rural locations and institutions. Implementing, maintaining and upgrading networks in rural regions is made complicated by regulatory standards, geography and topography that creates difficult landscapes for build-outs and overall cost of production versus the number of overall users.

As a result, in 2018, 39% of the rural population, compared to just 4% of the urban population, lacked access to what the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regards as basic fixed broadband service — 25 megabits per second (Mbps) down and 3 Mbps up. Even more startling, 20% lacked access even to service at the previous, now outdated, broadband definition of 4/1 Mbps.

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For providers, the complexity of deploying rural networks can also be an impediment. Often, a combined approach, which employs both wired and wireless infrastructure to reach more remote communities, is necessary. Wireless connectivity is more cost-effective and avoids the potential problem of geographical limitations. But the service can be less reliable. At the same time, wired connectivity is more robust and dependable but much more costly and time consuming to implement.

While the challenges are clear, this growing gap in accessibility—especially when it comes to life-saving or even day-to-day medical care—is far from acceptable. Luckily, the industry is working on ways to mitigate this disparity and provision capable networks where they are needed most.

Bridging the digital divide

The discrepancies between rural and urban communities are still very present. But government entities such as the FCC are working on incentivizing providers to build out in areas lacking in population density.

These incentives include changing or reducing regulation standards for these areas or providing direct funding, such as the Connect America Fund Phase II reverse auction, which allocated $1.488 billion to expand broadband to more than 700,000 rural locations in 45 states. As it stands, roughly two-thirds of rural Americans have reported that they have a broadband internet connection at home, up from about one-third in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center report released in early 2019.

For rural and underserved communities and institutions, the best way to pave a path for success is partnering with a provider that is experienced in delivering reliable, high-bandwidth and scalable networks in rural areas at a reasonable rate. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, ensuring that the promise of telehealth extends to all, not just some, will undoubtedly prove critical for global and collective progress.

Michael Morey is president and CEO of Bluebird Network.