With all the recent talk of ensuring affordable healthcare for all Americans, it is important to keep in mind that if health services are unavailable, the question of their cost is largely moot.
This is particularly relevant in rural America. Rural Americans face several very dramatic health challenges: they tend to be older, less affluent and subject to higher instances of chronic disease than their urban counterparts. And even though the United States spends more on healthcare than any other
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country, rural Americans continue to face lower life expectancies than their fellow countrymen who dwell in urban areas.
Sadly, just as rural residents face increased demand for healthcare services, they are simultaneously encountering a decrease in supply. The National Rural Health Association estimates nearly 80 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and an additional 670 rural facilities are considered "vulnerable" and in danger of shutting their doors.
Telehealth -- "the remote delivery of healthcare services and clinical information using telecommunications technology" -- holds tremendous potential to improve the quality, cost and availability of healthcare in rural areas.
A recent Smart Rural Community (SRC) white paper entitled "Anticipating Economic Returns of Rural Telehealth" outlines the case to be made for increasing adoption of telehealth in rural areas -- and throughout the country.
The non-quantifiable benefits of telehealth are numerous: improved access to specialists, speedier treatment, the comfort of remaining close to home, eliminating the need for long-distance transportation, allowing healthcare providers to sharpen their skills and improved patient outcomes, the white paper finds.
But telehealth has several quantifiable benefits: transportation cost savings (median cost savings: $5,718 per medical facility, annually); lost wages savings ($3,431 per medical facility, annually); hospital cost savings ($20,841 per medical facility, annually); and increased revenues for local labs ($145,109 per medical facility, annually) and pharmacies ($8,558 per medical facility, annually), SRC reports.
Realizing these benefits, however, first requires overcoming several difficult challenges, including reimbursement, cost, patient privacy and licensing.
As potentially significant as the potential benefits to telehealth -- both non-quantifiable and quantifiable -- may be, it is critically important to remember that rural telehealth's role in addressing the significant health problems inherent to rural areas will depend upon the availability of an underlying, future-proof, fiber-based broadband infrastructure. Further investment in, and expansion of, broadband infrastructure is a critical need not only for rural Americans but also our country as a whole. Absent access to such an infrastructure, the benefits of telemedicine will remain merely theoretical.
Several broadband providers and their communities already demonstrate innovative technology deployments that underscore how high-speed Internet access and telehealth providers benefit rural residents. For example, in Hawkinsville, Ga., ComSouth Telecommunications enabled a telehealth initiative that allows students and teachers to access medical care utilizing connected healthcarts in school-nurse offices that provide real-time links to remote physicians. In Milltown, Wis., Lakeland Communications allows a hospital with six locations across two states to connect and review charts, X-rays and other records at any location. And in Lafayette, Tenn.,
North Central Telephone Cooperative undertook a comprehensive broadband commitment to a local hospital, enabling that facility to reduce certain diagnostic protocols involving CT scans and X-rays from days to a span of minutes.
These are but a few of the many examples of small, rural telcos working to improve the quality of life in rural America. Despite the obstacles these providers face in bringing state-of-the-art broadband to some of the most difficult to serve areas of the country, their efforts ultimately facilitate potentially life-saving applications -- such as telehealth -- precisely where they are most needed. Their work allows the most vulnerable among us to share in the quantifiable and non-quantifiable benefits telehealth offers.
— Rick Schadelbauer is Manager, Economic Research and Analysis at NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. Follow on Twitter @NTCAconnect