The Broadband Barrier Blocking Telehealth Expansion in Rural America

A doctor uses telehealth technology to video conference with a patient

With telehealth technology, rural patients can meet with their doctor remotely, eliminating the need for long drives.

Access to healthcare has always been a struggle for rural communities. Too often, the sick, elderly, and disabled have had to drive hours just for basic medical needs. Telehealth is a viable health care solution for rural communities, but there is still a significant barrier standing in the way, and that barrier is insufficient broadband.

Telehealth: What is it?

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) defines telehealth as the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support and promote long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration. These technologies include things like video conferencing, the Internet or things, store-and-forward imaging, streaming media, and terrestrial and wireless communications.

Telehealth provides a world of resources rural patients wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. Virtual appointments give patients with mobility or transportation issues an opportunity to connect with a doctor or nurse without having to travel to see them. For those with ongoing health problems, there are apps and online services available to track medications, view test results, and provide important reminders, like when it’s time to schedule your next appointment.

The easy access to information telehealth creates allows healthcare providers to better serve their patients. Health history information is easily shared between providers, and virtual consultations enable primary care doctors to reach out to specialists with questions about patient care, reducing time and travel restrictions that might otherwise be a barrier to receiving the right care. Remote patient monitoring allows providers to observe changes in patient health, even from a distance, and provider-supplied online portals make it easy for patients to schedule appointments, communicate with their doctor, and request prescription refills all in one place.

Reaching the Rural Communities

The majority of areas OTELCO serves are very rural. In Alabama, one of OTELCO’s most extensive service areas, residents identified insufficient access to health-care as their number one health concern; this is not surprising, considering that Alabama ranks among the states with the least access to healthcare in the country. Missouri, another state with OTELCO services, is also among those states lacking adequate healthcare coverage. Both of these states are made up of vastly rural populations.

A doctor uses telehealth technology on his laptop.

Even as telehealth technology advances, rural communities are still restrained by their poor broadband connections

With ongoing technological advancements, telehealth has the potential to provide some much-needed health care to these rural areas.  Unfortunately, those advancements won’t do any good without an adequate Internet connection.  Maine, another state served by OTELCO, is the most rural state in the country, and like Alabama and Missouri, it struggles with health-care coverage. At a recent legislative hearing for broadband expansion in Maine, Lisa Harvey-McPherson of Northern Light Health gave testimony on the critical role broadband plays in telehealth.

In her testimony, Harvey explained that “Maine is a state with limited resource and advancing [t  elehealth] technology is the most cost-effective opportunity we have to increase access to a variety of health care.” She went on to paint a picture of the numerous health services that could be provided by telehealth technology, and how they are all “limited by Maine’s inadequate broadband infrastructure that cannot accommodate the Internet speed required to consistently support the technology.”

Investing in Rural Broadband

There is no set speed required to access telehealth services, but experts have landed on a minimum of 15/3 Mbps. Right now in the U.S., 39% of rural communities can’t even access speeds up to 10/1 Mbps. It is safe to say that rural communities are not equipped to sustain telehealth services and without local providers, they are left with little to no healthcare options.

OTELCO wants to bridge the “digital divide” that – among many other things – keeps rural American’s from accessing telehealth services.  That is why we are dedicated to improving broadband in rural areas. We do this by investing in municipal broadband projects as much as possible: actively participating in the municipal broadband community, and most of all,  by building out Lightwave Fiber Internet wherever and whenever we can.

OTELCO invests in Fiber-optic Internet because we believe it is the future of broadband. With the symmetrical speeds fiber provides, rural communities can easily access the telehealth services they need.  In 2018, OTELCO devoted $2,085,000 in fiber expansion. With that money, we were able to bring faster Internet to some 1,800 rural locations. OTELCO will continue to expand our Lightwave network to rural communities across the country so that everyone can access the benefits of technology like telehealth.

Check Out OTELCO's Interactive Fiber Map to See if You are Fiber Eligible