BY CRAIG SETTLES
With the decision to end net neutrality and the pending decision on February 2 to reduce the definition of broadband speed down to 10 Mbps download/1 Mbps upload, communities may be better off looking toward local solutions.
Many harmful effects of net neutrality repeal can end when communities own Internet infrastructure through municipalities, public utilities, co-ops, or public private partnerships. Community ownership can be easier and more profitable when telehealth and telemedicine is a primary goal of the network.
Unite your broadband team, healthcare stakeholders, public emergency, and telemedicine providers to integrate broadband and telemedicine. It’s one thing to find money to build a broadband network, but think about the fundraising opportunities when the objective is to build a healthcare asset.
Let’s take this discussion one step further. Consider creating a new kind of broadband triple play – aligning hospitals and healthcare institutions, schools, and libraries into a tele-healthcare hub [see diagram].
An engineering design team can create a wired and wireless infrastructure that links all three groups into a mini network and add a number of telemedicine applications and services. Then the community can apply for the Federal and state agencies that have broadband funds, as well as pursuing organizations, foundations, and other entities predispose to funding education, libraries, economic development etc.
The mini network has an additional benefit. Once conduit in the ground it’s not much more expensive to lay fiber strands to address other constituencies besides hospitals libraries and schools. The mini network becomes a foundation for expansion into other areas of the town or county.
How a triple play tele-healthcare hub might work
Obviously a tele-healthcare hub is a new idea. But in and of itself, telehealth applications are proving beneficial while more apps continually come online. The key is broadband, as it and telehealth form a symbiotic technology relationship. You cannot great telehealth without great broadband.
John Baker, Senior Analyst Telemedicine and Video at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City says, “You need good or excellent broadband for your live services to be useful. When I came on board three years ago, our Director of Telemedicine had done a lot of research and determined that we needed to accelerate our efforts and our bandwidth.”
Children’s Mercy uses AMD Global Telemedicine's devices and software to link the main hospital, their satellite hospital, and their general offices nearby. They will expand the technology when they build the new clinic in Junction City, Kansas. The hospital manages three satellite clinics, and the staff visits several rural clinics on a quarterly basis to provide telemedicine services.
“We generate 13-16 gigabit a day Monday-Friday,” Baker says. “There are 200 telehealth visits a month that are 30 minutes each. We have a 2 Gbps connection to our main hospital, a 1Gbps to a couple of sites, plus a 100 Mbps and a 50 Mbps fiber line."
The main hospital uses a local broadband provider. The clinics are in the Kansas metro area, so not a true rural setting. The clinics use ISPs located closest to them, but unfortunately, those connections were not reliable or fast enough.
The hospital staff caries a commercial hotspot that they plug into rooms at the rural clinics to provides 20 Mbps of cellular coverage. The hospital’s ambulances only provide transportation services between facilities, and each vehicle has cellular wireless antennas and a portable hotspot.
The ABC’s of telehealth in K-12
How many schools in your school district could integrate within your hub, especially if you get E-rate money from the FCC grant program?
One of the healthcare challenges facing Sevier County School System in Tennessee was how to stop the spread of communicable illnesses that resulted in school closings. "In some winters, the flu could affect as many as 20 percent of 14,000 students, causing entire schools to shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the flu," explained on Don Best, Coordinator of School Health for the system.
In 2009, the system turned to telemedicine. They use video-conferencing hookups and USB-compatible devices for quick exams and recording vital signs. The telehealth platform comes from AMD Global Telemedicine. The County also made sure there would be a nurse for every school.
During a telemedicine visit, a child can be screened, monitored, examined, diagnosed, and treated for everything including ear infections, strep throat, and obesity. The school and Cherokee Health can easily track health and illness trends.
In eight years there have been over 11,000 telemedicine encounters, and they’ve gone five years without a school closure due to influenza. 84 percent of the students treated via telehealth remain in school.
Libraries – a quiet telehealth ally
Libraries reach out and touch virtually everyone in their communities across the entire economic spectrum. Libraries often have the fastest broadband connections in the community.
Libraries can team up with healthcare providers in the hub to offer health and wellness knowledge as well as telehealth applications and services. Similar to privates companies that have healthcare providers schedule onsite telehealth services for employees, libraries could partner to offer these services to library patrons.
Mobile Beacon is a nonprofit that sells small WiFi transmitters called mobile hotspots to other nonprofit organizations. Libraries, the primary market Mobile Beacon sells to, loan these devices to their patrons for any time between several weeks to six or 12 months.
Katherine Messier, Mobile Beacon’s Executive Director, says, “Roughly 5% of our clients are healthcare organizations. Although it’s a small percentage of our client base, 37% of these organizations use our broadband service in direct support of their patients.” Mobile Beacon is pilot testing a program offering their units to clinics and libraries as part of a telehealth service.
The political scene in Washington looks a little bleak as far as broadband goes. However, creative community anchor institutions (with an emphasis on “creative”) can save the day.
Michael J. Watza, head of the governmental litigation and affairs practice at the Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook law firm says, “When communities are willing to commit resources to support theirs and their resident’s Constitutional rights and interests, and oppose over-reaching by industry, we can prevail because in many instances we are simply - right. We just need to stand and fight.”
Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and consultant to local governments. His report Telehealth & Broadband: In Sickness and In Health advises community broadband builders to drive broadband and telehealth adoption together.