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Flashpoint

September 15, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Better access to quality health care can happen

TERRE HAUTE — Over 50 million Americans live in areas where there are simply not enough health care providers to meet their basic needs. The problem is most live in rural communities, where residents are less likely to have access to primary care, not to mention the specialists and state-of-the-art medical equipment that is available in most urban areas.

In recent years, the Rural Health Association of Indiana has worked with hospitals across the state to embrace new technologies that help close the health care gap and provide rural populations with expanded access to high-quality health care services.

Launched in 2008 by the Indiana Rural Health Association, the Indiana Telehealth Network is a $16 million initiative that provides over 50 hospitals and over 100 clinics throughout Indiana with high-speed fiber connections.  These high-speed networks make it possible for doctors in rural hospitals to share information, access diagnostic equipment and consult with medical experts that are not readily available at their own facilities.

The Indiana Telehealth Network is closing the health care gap by providing patients in underserved rural communities with access to an expanded network of providers and life-saving medical equipment and technologies.  With a broadband connection, a cat scan with a file size of 750MB can be accessed in less than two and a half minutes; that’s a blink of the eye compared with the hours it would take to access the same file using a dial-up service.  

Hospitals are also using high-speed networks to improve patient wellness and education. Broadband makes it possible for hospitals to expand the reach of their preventive care initiatives, remotely monitor patient progress and communicate to those who are too old or sick to travel to far-away hospitals for follow-up visits or consultations.

Looking ahead, one of the biggest challenges we face is that many small hospitals, rural clinics and independent physicians lack access to the high-speed networks that are revolutionizing health care in other parts of the country. Many residents of rural areas also lack broadband access, which makes it impossible for them to access online health care resources and participate in telemedicine programs.

Unless we make broadband more widely available, rural residents will continue to fall behind when it comes to health care outcomes. It is for this reason that the Indiana Rural Health Association supports the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. The approval of this merger would result in an additional $8 billion investment by AT&T to expand the company’s 4G wireless network. These improvements would make AT&T’s next-generation broadband service available to over 97 percent of the U.S. population, including rural areas.

We are at a critical juncture when it comes to health care. Our population is aging. Federal and state budgets are getting tighter. Now is the time for innovation and creative solutions to improve the quality and affordability of health care. The proposed merger is a golden opportunity for our country to deliver better health care services to the underserved residents of rural communities.

Kelso is executive director of the Indiana Rural Health Association, a not-for-profit corporation, which seeks to improve the health of all Indiana citizens in rural settings.

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