Rural Healthcare and the Fight to Expand Broadband Coverage

Expanding Access to Care Starts with Bringing Patients Online

Around 15% of all Americans, or 46 million people, live in rural areas. However, rural America isn’t known for its abundance of healthcare providers. Patients living in rural areas may need to drive for hours to see the nearest specialist, which can be particularly difficult during winter.

Individuals with chronic conditions may only be able to travel so far; facing a slew of obstacles, many patients may delay or miss important appointments or forgo seeking care altogether. These long travel times and missed appointments can inflate the cost of care for both patients and providers. 

Telehealth can help expand access to care by bringing healthcare to patients in their homes, eliminating the distance between providers and their patients. Unfortunately, accessing the internet in rural areas isn’t always easy. To expand access to rural healthcare, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working to allow more Americans to receive healthcare virtually by making changes to the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program.

Accessing Healthcare in Rural America

Finding a doctor or specialist in rural areas can be a challenge. According to the National Rural Health Association, the patient-to-primary care physician ratio in rural areas is just 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 in urban areas. With fewer care providers available, patients may have to wait weeks or months before they can schedule their first appointment, which delays the delivery of care. 

Additionally, many of these patients must travel long distances to see the nearest healthcare provider in person. Securing transportation to and from medical appointments isn’t always an option, especially during the winter months. Snow and ice can make travel nearly impossible, further limiting patient access to care. 

Rural Telehealth and Expanding Broadband Coverage 

Telehealth can help keep rural patients at home, so they can consult with local healthcare providers without having to travel. Patients can use live video and audio to discuss their health with licensed providers in real-time. Doctors can also use wearable devices to monitor the health of their patients remotely, reducing the need for in-person care. 

To get rural telehealth programs off the ground, patients and providers need access to broadband or Wi-Fi, so they can connect to the internet and make use of these services. 53% of rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps of bandwidth, the benchmark for internet speed according to the Federal Communications Commission. Without access to sufficient internet, telehealth services may be difficult to implement in rural areas. 

To facilitate rural telehealth expansion, the FCC just announced that it’s making changes to the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program, which was designed to expand broadband access in rural areas where signals tend to be weak. The FCC has agreed to supply more funds to the program while changing the way these funds are allocated to prevent fraud, abuse, and wasteful spending. The FCC will focus on clarifying the rate of bandwidth necessary for healthcare providers, comparing bandwidth rates between rural and urban areas, and creating a public database of bandwidth rates across rural and urban areas. 

The more the FCC and other parties learn about this issue, the better equipped they will be to expand access to rural telehealth. While telehealth can help expand patient access to care, these programs can’t be fully implemented until providers and their patients have reliable access to the Internet. As more healthcare providers and rural areas gain access to the web, support for telehealth will only continue to grow. Visit InTouch Health to learn more about the benefits of telehealth.

Sources:
https://www.census.gov/geo/reference/urban-rural.html
https://www.ruralhealthweb.org/about-nrha/about-rural-health-care
https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2019-10-11/pdf/2019-20173.pdf