FCC to Increase Rural Healthcare Access

Ben Cole, for HealthLeaders Media , November 28, 2007

A new Federal Communications Commission initiative dedicates $417 million to increase access to healthcare in rural America through broadband telehealth services.

The Rural Health Care Pilot Program supports the connection of more than 6,000 public and non-profit healthcare providers to broadband telehealth networks. Facilities participating in the program include hospitals, clinics, universities, research centers, behavioral health sites, correctional facility clinics, and community health centers.

"One of the FCC's top priorities is the deployment of broadband across America and to utilize that technology to expand telemedicine to rural and underserved areas," said FCC spokesperson Robert Kenny. "The pilot program will provide a platform for healthcare providers to better serve their patients and increase their access to specialty care through telemedicine."

Through the program, participants are eligible for funding for up to 85 percent of the costs associated with the design, engineering and construction of the broadband health networks. To ensure quality and efficiency, projects must be competitively bid and are subject to quarterly reviews, oversight and audits.

One of the program's beneficiaries is Chattanooga, TN-based Erlanger Health System. Erlanger is a nonprofit academic teaching center affiliated with the University of Tennessee College of Medicine. Erlanger is also a level-one trauma center and the only provider of tertiary care services for residents of a four-state region encompassing southeast Tennessee, north Georgia, north Alabama and western North Carolina.

"This is a way for us to be able to provide care in an area that traditionally hasn't been provided for at a lesser dollar cost than what they could have ever hoped to provide that care for at the rural level," says Robert Forgey, senior vice president of business development at Erlanger. "Will it improve healthcare? Absolutely, no question."

Erlanger is authorized for up to $2.1 million from the program, which will be used to extend an existing fiber network to deliver patient care, video consultations and data exchange to healthcare facilities in sparsely populated regions of southeast Tennessee and areas of northern Georgia, western North Carolina, and northeast Alabama.

Forgey says there are countless ways the Rural Health Pilot program can potentially benefit both rural hospitals and their urban counterparts. For example, using telemedicine allows emergency physicians at remote hospitals to communicate with a larger facility to determine if it is appropriate to transfer the patient to a higher level of care.

"That way, the rural community retains their patients and their capabilities for the ones that they can retain, and the tertiary care center is not inundated with patients that it doesn't need that would be more appropriately left to the rural community," Forgey says. "That saves dollars in that community and that saves dollars for us."

Because the telemedicine system allows real-time access to patient information among the connected facilities, it allows for much broader communication capabilities, Forgey says.

"Hospitals that don't have specialists or certain positions after hours in a rural area can access the downtown tertiary facility specialist via an Internet-type link," he says. "We can send electronic record information back and forth to each other that wouldn't normally be available so that we have real-time information wherever the patient is."

Additionally, Forgey says such benefits merely scratch the surface of the program's potential. The vastly increased communication between facilities can benefit jails, for example, because doctors at the tertiary facility can make a determination whether a sick prisoner needs to be transported to a hospital, or a physician can provide instructions to provide onsite care at the prison. Disaster management will benefit as well, Forgey says.

"This link will allow us now to communicate on a much, much broader basis those issues related to disasters and be able to use our rural area hospitals for assistance," he says. "We'll now know what beds they have available because we can communicate real-time with them--we didn't have those capabilities before."

From the FCC's standpoint, the goal of the project is threefold. One is to share the benefits of telemedicine access to primary and specialty care patients who normally would have to travel large distances to receive care, Kenny says. "This way, they are able to have their local hospital that may have limited services to coordinate and consult with larger teaching hospitals or trauma centers to deliver that care through consultation."

Another piece is to ensure that healthcare facilities across the country are able to utilize available technologies and expand their efforts in the area of health information technology. Third--and what Kenny says may be the most important benefit--is the coordination emergency care by allowing healthcare providers to share critical information.

"By building better broadband networks, it will better enable healthcare providers, as well as the government, to coordinate together in the event of a public health emergency and to utilize those networks to ensure that they could share information and data, analyze the information and situation, and make tough decisions very quickly," Kenny says.

Ben Cole is associate editor with HealthLeaders Online News. He can be reached at bcole@healthleadersmedia.com.

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