Healthcare today is an increasingly digital experience. From electronic medical records to online billing and remote monitoring of patients, much of our care heavily relies on the cloud. Telemedicine often increases patient access to care and can lower costs, but it requires both providers and patients have access to reliable, high-speed broadband. Therefore, to make more Americans healthier, the nation should "prescribe" a healthy dose of fiber broadband.
The United States faces a critical lack of healthcare providers in rural areas. While the number of physicians has increased in the last few years, the number practicing in rural America has actually dropped. This translates into healthcare access problems for rural Americans, particularly those with more complex healthcare needs. One-fourth of rural Americans lack access to adequate healthcare and one in 10 reported hospital closures in their communities, according to research released in May 2019 by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And, in rural areas it can be particularly difficult to see a specialist.
The good news, however, is that one way to improve rural residents' healthcare complements other initiatives designed to enhance the economy, education and all other facets of life across the country.
Virtual doctors, real care
The keen interest in telemedicine is not restricted to traveling executives or parents with a sick child. Both patients and medical professionals increasingly want to use telehealth, with a three-fold increase in physician adoption of this technology over the past four years.
A study conducted by Harvard Medical School and published in JAMA earlier this year found greater broadband access was associated with greater telemedicine use. In other words, if you build it, medical professionals will use it to make this country healthier. Rural patients need these services for everything from filling prescriptions to managing chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension. Rural telehealth patients reported high levels of satisfaction with telehealth visits via phone, live text chat or live video, NPR reported.
Telehealth cuts costs for patients and providers: Indeed, telehealth options saved rural hospitals more than $100,000 annually, research from NTCA found. Patients living with Type 2 diabetes saved up to $4,000 in federal healthcare costs per patient in a pilot CoBank conducted in Atlanta. In the operator-finance firm's rural Georgia pilot, patients saw drastically improved A1c rates, which greatly lowered the risk of complications from diabetes, reduced the risk of hospitalization -- translating into huge savings and happier patients down the line.
Earlier this year, the UK recognized its need for high-speed broadband to fuel its National Health Service and announced plans to equip all hospitals and general practitioner practices with fiber broadband. NHS' leaders found that the slow connectivity of copper lines couldn't support the capacity needed for video consultations and other essential operations. NHS will switch to fiber because "we need clinicians and other healthcare professionals to feel confident they can access fast, reliable broadband so they can provide patients with the best possible care," the Secretary for Health and Social Care said at the time.
Deploying high-speed fiber broadband can be an expensive undertaking, but the benefits are worthwhile. Access to telehealth fueled by fiber broadband can improve the health and wellbeing of those living in previously unconnected communities. It's time to build out high-speed all-fiber networks to serve more rural Americans. It's the right thing to do.
— Lisa R. Youngers is President and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), the only all-fiber trade association in the Americas. Follow them on Twitter @fiberbroadband.