Telehealth Summit: Rural Networks Bring Quality Healthcare to Rural Communities

By Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

January 2017

Ten-year-old Fera Heckman’s body was almost completely crushed after her ATV rolled over during a trip to rural Montana last summer. The nearest hospital to the accident was more than an hour away and was too small to have an emergency team on duty. Luckily for Fera and her family, the rural hospital was equipped with quality broadband service and could remotely connect to an emergency medicine specialist with Avera eCARE all the way in Sioux Falls, S.D. The doctor on the other end of the connection remotely coordinated with the trauma room where Fera was, called a flight team, and directed the physician’s assistant to help stabilize Fera until they arrived.

Incredible stories like Fera’s are now becoming more and more common with the advancements being made in rural telecommunications. With rural hospitals continuing to close (on average one in three rural hospitals is at risk of closing), telehealth, or the enhancement of health care using telecommunications technologies, is going to be a necessity—not a luxury—for rural areas.

Telehealth was the focus of the FRS event “Rural Health at a Digital Crossroads: Improving Care With Telehealth,” in Washington, D.C., last December. FRS, hosting the event with the NTCA Smart Rural Community program, invited rural telecom providers, health care providers, vendors and policymakers as guests.

The event’s keynote speaker was Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (D–W.Va.), who expressed concern over the effect of the digital divide on education and health care in rural America. The first panel featured Dr. Karen Rheuban of UVA’s Office of Telemedicine, Dr. Andrew Coburn of the University of Southern Maine and Mark Shlanta, chief executive officer of SDN Communications (Sioux Falls, S.D.). Shlanta, who also sits on the board of Avera eCare, explained that one of the biggest obstacles to telehealth is ensuring that the right infrastructure is in key places in order to enable the services. Rheuban said there had been a 40% reduction in hospital readmissions since her office began its telemedicine initiative in Virginia. Coburn highlighted significant pressure on rural providers and said hospital closings in rural communities will accelerate in the next five years.

By continuing to encourage conversations about the importance of telehealth and the value that rural networks can provide to providing access to health care services, the event put a spotlight on the importance of rural communities continuing to have access to quality care.