Having deployed fiber-based gigabit broadband to residential customers around a city, what can a provider do next? In the case of one Tennessee utility, it added telehealth services to the resounding approval of a growing number of subscribers. Or is that patients?
Municipally-owned utility Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, generally known as EPB, was an early deployer of fiber. Today it provides both electric power and fiber optic communication services to more than 170,000 homes and businesses in a 600 square-mile area in and around greater Chattanooga and North Georgia.
But when it wanted leverage that symmetrical speed to expand service offerings into telehealth, it recognized there was an overwhelming number of options, recalled Katie Espeseth, vice president of product development at EPB, in an interview.
Fortunately, EPB is a member of US Ignite's Smart Gigabit Communities program, a network of 25-plus communities that commit to accelerating the development, deployment and sharing of smart communities and Internet of Things applications to help drive local "innovation economies," according to US Ignite. Working with local universities and researchers, stakeholders and others on a steering committee to support application deployment and sharing, SGCs share their lessons across the network and the entire US Ignite ecosystem, to ensure widespread amplification.
EPB offers traditional infrastructure services via gigabit broadband, but wanted to expand into new offerings. (Source: EPB)
Docity, a HIPAA-compliant telehealth provider, also joined SGC, seeking ways to extend its market reach. Founded in 2016 and sold to clinical doctors, the partnership with US Ignite and ultimately EPB marked the first -- but not the last -- time Docity teamed up with a service provider, Docity Co-Founder and Director of Customer Happiness Will Bewley told Broadband World News.
"We view, in many ways, Internet service providers as utilities," he said. "In the markets we serve -- which tend to be midmarket and smaller (Chattanooga size and smaller) -- they tend to be community focused. They want to be focused on their customers or members and want to find ways to utilize this broadband or fiber, and telemedicine is a great way to utilize it."
Throughout most of 2018, EPB has piloted Docity, Espeseth said. Several clinics and practices in EPB's footprint use the service, which starts at $9.95 per month for EPB broadband customers. It allows these practitioners to add value by, for example, seeing home-based patients who are too sick to travel; working extra hours, say weekends or evenings, from the comfort of providers' homes or offering second opinions to other doctors' patients without either needing to travel out of town.
More mainstream hospitals also are slowly embracing telehealth although they remain the exception, not the norm, James Cowan, founder and CEO, told BBWN. With the federal government's continued focus on reducing healthcare's costs and the industry's focus on overall health -- from prevention to sickness to maintenance -- it is surprising telemedicine has not garnered wholesale support, he said. Yet.
"We're a little bit upset at the FCC for letting the cat out of the bag on what we're doing. Incentives are aligned to increase access and reduce cost overall," Cowan said.
Even though the trial is not quite over, Docity said it's already a success; EPB agrees, based on medical providers' adoption and Docity's service, said Espeseth. To address EPB's security concerns, Docity deployed a VPLS circuit to create a true peer-to-peer network between patient and provider, he noted. And that's something any network, whether it's 5G, fixed wireless access or an alternate approach in rural regions, should consider although it's not necessary, said Cowan.
"If we don't have broadband access in these rural areas, we can't do [telemedicine]," he said. "There are a lot of conditions that can be treated by telehealth and those conditions are growing. Beginning in 2019, there are changes in payment because of the CHRONIC Act that will greatly expand telehealth acceptance, which is great news for patients and ISPs and companies like Docity."
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