Broadband makes a difference daily
Imagine a world with greater health care accessibility, as convenient as contacting a physician from your home. Or consider a medical system where rural communities can easily connect in real time with specialists based dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away.
Broadband technology provides the key link between you and medical providers needed to make those innovations and others possible, and that more convenient, healthier world is becoming a reality for rural communities across the nation. The systems are not yet what they one day may become, but every day more and more people are receiving the benefits of telemedicine. And the results are often profound.
Kentucky veterans have easier access to important care. Changing laws in states such as Texas allow greater access to telemedicine. Telestroke programs in Minnesota and North Dakota save vital minutes when patients most need care. And those are just a few examples of broadband technology changing health care for the better.
In rural Kentucky, getting to and from an appointment at any medical specialist can often require hours of travel. But when you’re a veteran trying to get to a Veterans Administration Medical Center in a metropolitan area, travel times can increase even more. And a veteran might need multiple doctors and have multiple appointments scheduled on different days.
An innovative pilot program in a mountainous section of eastern Kentucky is helping to change that. The Virtual Living Room program, which started in 2017 in McKee, offers vets a comfortable and private room in their local library complete with high-speed internet access to visit with VA health care providers located more than an hour’s drive away.
The program, available for setup at other qualifying sites, not only illustrates the potential of telemedicine but also shows the efforts being made to create a system capable of benefiting as many people as possible.
The McKee Virtual Living Room is a collaboration among four organizations: the VA, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, the rural telecom provider Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative and the Jackson County Public Library. The VA has provided telehealth services for several years, but it can’t happen if vets don’t have access to high-speed internet connections either in their homes or nearby.
“The rest of the country, like us, really admires our veterans,” says Keith Gabbard, chief executive officer of PRTC. “Before the project, we saw veterans spending the day in a waiting room at the hospital, and when they live an hour and a half away, it’s pretty much an all-day event for a veteran to get health care.” Fast fiber optic internet networks make telemedicine a realistic option for more and more communities, and the cooperative was a leader in establishing the Virtual Living Room at the Jackson County Public Library.
“We’ve done a lot to promote it, and the library staff and the veterans are really proud of it,” Gabbard says. “It’s a source of pride for our community, and it continues to grow. The Virtual Living Room is a beautiful area where veterans, even if they don’t have a doctor’s appointment, can go and read a book. It feels like it’s their home.”
While faster internet may provide the foundation for telemedicine services, the legal and regulatory framework of each state can play a role in determining the effectiveness of the programs.
In May 2017, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that leveled the playing field for telemedicine physicians and doctors who work in traditional office settings. In part, the law eliminated a requirement for a patient to first visit a physician in person before receiving care through telemedicine.
“The bill removed a lot of barriers, and we’ve seen an increase in queries about telehealth,” says Becky Bounds, program manager for the TexLa Telehealth Resource Center in Lubbock, Texas. The federally funded center works to provide resources and technical assistance to telehealth programs in Texas and Louisiana.
Bounds says the internet-based tools offer key services. For example, Lubbock is home to the Timothy J. Harnar Regional Burn Center, which often receives patients injured while working in the industries of West Texas. After treatment and returning home, follow-up visits to Lubbock could require drives of five to six hours. However, a telemedicine-equipped clinic on the campus of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso allows patients to virtually visit with specialists in Lubbock.
“About 12% of the state’s population lives in West Texas, and telehealth matters,” Bounds says. “We are producing cotton, beef, oil and more, and we need health care for the workforce producing those products for the rest of the state and the nation.”
THE GOLDEN HOUR
When it comes to treating a stroke, doctors have a saying: Time is brain. It’s a reminder that every minute that passes between the event and treatment can lead to irreversible damage. Fortunately, telemedicine technology already gives doctors a fighting chance to begin treating patients before the critical “golden hour” passes.
One of the leaders for this technology in the Midwest is Essentia Health, which established telemedicine capabilities in each of its 17 hospitals, 70 clinics and eight nursing homes throughout Minnesota and North Dakota. With its telestroke program, emergency medical technicians can identify stroke patients on the way to the hospital and even begin treatment.
Essentia Director of Telehealth Services Laurie Hall recalls an ambulance picking up a rural patient nearly 90 minutes from the nearest hospital. In the past, serious brain damage would have been a near certainty for such a patient. But thanks to telestroke technology, EMTs diagnosed a stroke and began treatment about 45 minutes after the stroke occurred.
“The goal is to shorten that window from the time the patient has the event to the time they actually get those clot-busting medications or the clot is removed,” Hall says. “Getting that done so quickly is profound when you think about the injury that could happen from just those few extra minutes. It helps these patients get out of the hospital much quicker and to get on with their normal lives.”