Broadband gap in rural healthcare facilities is growing – maybe rules are getting in the way

According to Daily Yonder, rural areas are falling farther behind urban counterparts when it comes to broadband access…

rural healthcare gaps

The results (as depicted in the chart above) show a significant difference in the speeds at which healthcare facilities connect between metro and non-metro areas…

More striking, however, is how those rates changed between 2010 and 2014. Healthcare facilities in metro areas saw their rates of “very fast” connections shoot up from 14% to 55%, while facilities in non-metro areas saw a much smaller increase (from 5% to 12%). Similarly, the percentage of metro facilities with “very slow” connections decreased from 33% to 11%, but non-metro connections of this type had a much slower decline (from 38% to 28%). The result is that the healthcare connectivity gap is much worse as of 2014 than it was in 2010. Similar gaps exist for upload speeds (which are important for technologies like EHRs and HIEs).

Sounds like the biggest issue isn’t the hospitals but other health care facilities…

The remainder of the study goes on to show that this gap is primarily driven by non-hospital facilities. That is, the rate of growth for hospital connections between 2010 and 2014 is actually quite similar between metro and non-metro areas. However, when the analysis is done for non-hospital facilities (private practices, health departments, pharmacies, clinics, etc.), it becomes clear that the gap is dramatically increasing for these types of healthcare services. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission has recommended that solo primary care practices have speeds of at least 4 MBPS and that small primary care practices, nursing homes, and rural health clinics have speeds of at least 10 MBPS. The latest data (from 2014) indicates that a significant portion of rural healthcare facilities are not meeting these requirements.

The disheartening thing is that apparently folks have been aware of the problem and have been trying to offer assistance – but perhaps the rules to get assistance are too stringent…

This increasing connectivity gap happened despite the existence of a pilot (and resulting full-time) program called the Healthcare Connect Fund. This program had funds available to support broadband connectivity for public or not-for-profit health care providers including hospitals, rural health clinics, and local health departments. However, the fund is dramatically underused – perhaps due to overly stringent requirements. This research suggests that changes to this program should be considered to encourage participation by nonhospital facilities.

I worry about the same thing with recent iterations of the Minnesota broadband bills floating around the House and Senate. Broadband – like healthcare – is tough to understand. The Office of Broadband Development has received praise for their management of the previous rounds of grants. They work, eat, sleep, this stuff. Maybe the legislators should defer some of the rules to them. The same way policymakers might look at having healthcare experts look at issues with the Healthcare Fund.

In other news – Minnesota legislators are worried about shortages of doctors in rural areas. They are looking into grants for doctors who do residencies in rural areas.

That’s why Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and other senators want to address a growing doctor shortage throughout the state with a variety of grants and programs to encourage and educate more physicians. Sheran, the chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, put a bill before that committee Wednesday to create a grant for prospective family medicine doctors to undergo their residencies in rural Minnesota.

Maybe these articles have more in common than is immediately apparent. Maybe better broadband would attract more doctors by allowing for access to continued education, opening the door to remote telehealth access to specialists simply streamlining some tasks (see the recent article I posted on impact of better broadband on business) and allowing doctors to focus on patients and medicine.

This entry was posted in Healthcare, MN, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

I have a Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. I have been interested or involved in providing access to information through the Internet since 1994, when I worked for Minnesota’s first Internet service provider. I am pleased to be a part of the Blandin on Broadband Team. I also work with MN Coalition on Government Information, Minnesota Rural Partners, and the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

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