Telehealth — the Ideal Marketing Tool for Rural Municipal Networks

Telehealth is a great way to meet a community need while demonstrating the advantages of having a fast and publicly owned internet service provider.

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Publicly owned networks don’t have stockholders to make rich. But they still need to think about marketing. Adding subscribers helps financially sustain the network, and it makes the system more valuable to the people and institutions that use it.

In a rural area, one of the most powerful marketing messages may be “The Telemedicine Doctor Is always In.”

Various telehealth apps are ideal marketing tools for winning over potential subscribers to the network. These apps also do a lot to establish a marketing edge against competitors.

“I saw offering telehealth apps to our subscribers as an excellent opportunity to leverage the infrastructure appropriately and to demonstrate what a gig is,” says Jeremy Bowers, CEO of Spark Fiber, an internet service provider in Flint, Michigan. “One of the biggest problems we have currently is that it’s difficult for customers to figure out why they need so much speed, why they need symmetrical upload and download speeds.”

On his community network, Bowers partnered with Docity, a telemedicine app that allowed subscribers to meet online with their personal, long-time doctor rather than a randomly selected doctor they may never see again.

Testing: One, Two Three

Organizations often run pilot tests to determine if the technology they’re about to buy works as advertised. They want to make sure that end users are comfortable with the technology and that the technology will adapt to meet the needs of their organization. The best pilots use a representative sample of individuals and organizations within a limited geographical area.

Besides testing technology, an effective pilot can help the city’s network team try different marketing approaches and messages. The community can verify that telemedicine delivers benefits as promised through providing feedback on different telehealth apps and services. They can also respond to marketing tactics and messages. Just don’t let the pilot test run too long warns Ellumen’s Technology Strategist John Kornak.


Announcement

The 2018 Community Broadband Summit in Austin, Texas, will include a track of sessions on rural broadband. If you are attending, you can receive a registration discount by using the code YONDER410. The code will reduce the cost to $410 (the early bird registration fee is $750; the full fee is $950). Please note that public officials and government representatives will pay less if they use the public officials discount.

The event is April 30-May 3.  Daily Yonder correspondent Craig Settles will be part of a session on rural telehealth and Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder, will be part of a panel on trends in rural economics, policy, and technology.


“About three months is a good time for these things,” says Kornak. “But the problem is when you get too many people trying to manage the process. Then pilots can go on and on and on.” It may take 30 days to set up the actual test, and during that time it’s important to establish telemedicine benchmarks so the participants are aware of the pilot’s goals, he said.

Another objective of a pilot program is to help make an initial determination of what direction telehealth might take in a particular community network’s service area. It could help network leaders test ways to involve schools, community or senior centers, and even small office buildings as part of the telemedicine delivery system.

Executing the Pilot Test

Typically, telemedicine pilot programs are designed for hospitals and other healthcare facilities that have large budgets and executed by information technology departments and hospital administrators.

Unfortunately, in some rural areas, healthcare options may be limited and hospitals nonexistent, says Kevin Short, general manager of Anza Electric Cooperative. “There aren’t any hospitals within our service area, and some of our members have to drive an hour or two to get to them,” Short says.

Telemedicine pilot tests in rural areas may require a team that includes a representative of the municipal or co-op broadband network,  a local clinic or doctor, a member of the community, and a telemedicine vender or consultant. It is vital to understand that the municipality or co-op is facilitating the introduction of telemedicine into their community, but vendors own the apps and services. If there’s going to an “unconventional” organization such as a school or a library as part of telemedicine delivery system, a director or administrator should be part of the team.

James Cowan, CEO of telemedicine vendor Docity says there are some clear types of telehealth services.

“Telehealth applications and services can fall into three categories for a pilot test: 1) those that provide medical assistance and treatments, 2) apps that provide patients with advice, tips, programs, etc., that prevent disease or injury before acute symptoms develop, and 3) those that monitor health treatments and chronic care,” he says.

The team should pick the particular telemedicine applications to be tested, but there also should be ample input from the community that is part of the pilot test.

The testing team as well as the community should consider the usual telemedicine suspects, such as video visits with physicians, treating opiate abuse, and preventative care of chronic illnesses. They might consider apps to test that may not be as familiar including tele-dentistry, tele-psychiatry, and business office-based telehealth.

“Large corporations that provide their own health insurance are moving to incorporate telehealth clinics on the properties,” says Ben Lewis-Ramirez, business development manager at Foresite Group. “I think a scaled-down version of this initiative could come from small rural companies. Dedicating networks, or portions of networks, to telehealth would make the barrier to entry for smaller business lower and achievable.”

The team should take into account there likely will be a per-person cost associated with the pilot that may or may not be covered by insurance.

Tips and Recommendations

Telehealth experts recommend itemizing an inventory of resources that can help facilitate the pilot test, which could include community nonprofits, medical professionals, funding sources, and others. Communities might use only one or two of these resources for the pilot, but the team should consider the long-term needs and identify all resources within the network service area.

Kornak recommends the following checklist of activities to increase the success of the pilot test:

  • Administer a survey to potential pilot test participants gauge their expectations of the pilot.
  • Include local physicians either as participants or observers.
  • Document how healthcare is being administered currently in the medical disciplines that the pilot addresses.
  • Creates analytical engine of some sort to access the data gathered.
  • And while the team doesn’t want to over-test in the pilot, the data gathered may suggest expanding the number of test participants or extending the pilot by another three months.

After the pilot testing is finished, participants should complete an evaluation of their experience. Final meetings should focus on debriefing and setting goals for the future.

Craig Settles is a community broadband consultant, a broadband business planner, and author of “Building the Gigabit City.” Mr. Settles is a speaker at Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas, in May.

 

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