Rural Broadband Co-ops Create Opportunity for Next Level of Telehealth

Telehealth means a lot more than just video conferencing between doctor and patient. Making the medical technology work means the ability to move data – lots and lots of data.

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Score another solid victory for broadband activists and stakeholders, this time in Georgia, as legislators and the governor enacted a bill giving unequivocal support to co-ops that want to build and manage their own broadband infrastructure and services. Both the state Senate and the House unanimously, and the governor signed the bill last week.

The statehouse’s actions are timely. Co-ops appear to be the fastest-growing segment of the community broadband, according to industry watchers at the Broadband Communities Summit held in April in Austin, Texas. “The promises of the incumbents to upgrade their network speeds have not come to fruition,” says Bryan Rader, president of Upstream. “This has given co-ops the opening to build networks for their members that meet their need for speed.”

Keeping pace with co-ops’ interest in broadband-driven education is the co-ops’ desire to advance telehealth in their communities. As the legislative barriers continue to drop, co-op leaders are eager to test telehealth technologies.

“We linked 300 schools with a 10-gig connection to create an education exchange,” says Michael Foor, North Georgia Network (NGN) vice president of market and member services. “All of the schools share digital education resources. Our co-op can do the same thing with a telehealthcare network. If talented telehealth providers come to us that can make our communities healthier, we are open to that.”

NGN is four electric co-ops that united to create a 1,600-mile broadband network: Habersham Electric Membership Corporation (HEMC), Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation (BRMEMC), NGN Connect, and NGN. They have fiber connected to 10,000 homes, libraries, schools, and hospitals, in north Georgia and recently added 100-gigabit capacity to their fiber backbone. That capacity creates opportunity for telehealth services.

“When we give our customers the opportunity to connect with more than just videos and entertainment, that drives adoption and connectedness,” says Robert Hance, president and CEO of Midwest Energy & Communications of Southwest Michigan. “In our broadband network buildout area, we are hitting 62% take-rates. As we give more of our members telehealth and other options, we expect to get all of them connected.”

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As the momentum to deploy broadband in co-op service territories grows, so too should the interest to launch more telehealth applications.

Virginia Harman, chief operating officer of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, said her organization is working with medical establishments to implement telehealth applications. “We are also working with multiple partners to move teleheatlth and telemedicine forward in our rural communities,” she said in testimony last week on a Colorado Senate bill related to broadband. “Access to true high speed internet is a necessity for our communities as we look to the future of both the education and medical industries.”

Co-ops obviously can use broadband to connect doctors and other healthcare professionals to each other, and between medical facilities. Hospitals are benefiting from software solutions such as electronic medical record (EMR). But co-ops may need to lay adequate broadband foundations to connect the array of software apps, medical treatments, devices, telehealth technologies and patient-management processes that need to be connected to each other, to healthcare professionals miles away, and to patients in their homes, often through the internet of things.

Communities need to understand that telehealth includes connecting to knowledge and knowledgebases. Dr. Nizan Friedman is CEO and co-founder of Flint Rehab, which manufactures devices that assist stroke patients. He believes broadband has great value in small rural communities because it bridges the gaps to knowledge, medical or otherwise.

“If your broadband is sufficient, you can access and use online applications and devices such as ours,” he says. “But patients also can tap the expertise of professionals at leading medical facilities in the country who use our devices. Furthermore, with sites such as Twitter and Facebook, patients can collaborate and motivate each other. It all helps the healing.”

“You cannot effectively treat and heal patients without the ability to gather, manage, and distribute data – lots and lots of data,” says Peg Molloy, president and CEO of VistaLifeScience. “We have to stop thinking of telehealth as just a video conferencing between the doctor and patient.”

Co-ops have to build infrastructure that can transport great amounts of individual and population data through smartphones, computers, servers, and cloud systems. Healthcare professionals and administrators have to run health assessments, disease management systems, treatment histories. And of course, the data about the various things that ails patients and the many yet-to-be-discovered treatments that can cure the patient.

No Magic Bullet

Putting broadband infrastructure in place by itself probably isn’t a magic bullet, but it can help stop the hemorrhaging of hospital closings. Arrowhead Electric Cooperative built a fiber network in Cook County, Minnesota, a few years ago. “Our main healthcare facilities send patients home with medic alert-type devices and even tablets to monitor recovery and ensure communication thanks to fiber to home,” says Yusef Orest, head of Membership.

“Before the network, individuals had Internet access, but it wasn’t fast. Now, hospitals are increasing medical services on their sites and at home. They can perform ultrasounds and radiology scans and send results instantly to bigger hospitals for analysis.”

A co-op can take the raw ingredients of a high-speed network, virtual reality, streaming video and audio, telehealth applications, and healthcare professionals to create a medical hub that can make great improvements in local community healthcare. This is subsequently good for broadband adoption, new-company recruiting, employment, a healthier community, and stabilizing or increasing rural population. Additional broadband funding could come through government grants and philanthropic organizations to address long-term needs.

Craig Settles  consults with municipalities and co-ops  about their broadband networks’ business and marketing plans.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story used a quote from Virginia Harman taken from a 2017 publication by Craig Settles. An earlier version of this story also misstated Harman’s position. She is chief operating officer of the Delta-Montrose Electric Association

 

 

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