FCC Proposal Would Expand Broadband to Rural Healthcare Providers

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media , July 16, 2010

It would improve affordable broadband connectivity to more than 2,000 rural hospitals and clinics and deliver connections where they are needed most.

"This would expand eligibility from roughly 9,800 entities today to roughly 12,000 rural healthcare providers," according to an FCC statement.

The care connectivity grant program will give patients in rural areas access to state of the art diagnostic tools typically available only in the largest and more sophisticated medical centers, according to the agency's statement.

By doing so, the FCC says it hopes to cut medical costs "dramatically" by shortening average lengths of hospital stays and reducing the need for unnecessary or duplicative tests and increase administrative efficiencies.

How the money is eventually allocated will be a decision made on the basis of lessons learned from 62 pilot projects in rural areas in 40 states plus Puerto Rico, which received grants between $24.7 million (to the New England Telehealth Consortium) to $93,240 to the Mountain States Health Alliance in Tennessee and Virginia.

These grants were designed to benefit telehealth networks, upgrade operating speeds and fiber optic lines, strengthen disaster response, create electronic medical record capabilities, and improve training and education opportunities.

For example, a $387,187 grant in Kentucky helped build a T1 network to connect 20 facilities specializing in mental health services with video consultation and other videoconferencing applications.

A California grant of $22.1 million facilitates improved counseling and patient-physician interaction for rural residents with depression, hypertension, asthma and cardiovascular disease.

And in Utah, a $9 million allocation is upgrading networks serving 133 rural hospitals community health centers on the Navajo reservation and other facilities.

According to an FCC news release, the new care connectivity program "has the potential to do for rural healthcare providers and patients what the enormously successful E-Rate program has done for schools and students."

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