Would pushing broadband out to the furthest reaches of rural America fill gaps in health care? A project in Pennsylvania thinks so.

is a Pennsylvania Medical Society project that is expanding broadband to physicians who are without it. Those docs with ‘lower’ broadband might also have access to faster quality speeds. The goal: to improve health care in Pennsylvania, especially in rural areas.

Why do physician practices need broadband access? ConnecttheDocs says that access to broadband is the first step in adopting technologies that can improve the quality and safety in health care.

The services that broadband underpins that speak to quality and safety include: electronic prescribing; research, collaboration, and on-line training, telehealth applications, such as home monitoring (especially relevant to Pennsylvania’s aging population); and, access to specialists in underserved areas through telemedicine.

The PMS found that 11,000 physicians in Pennsylvania needed broadband in 2006. Of these, about 2,700 had dial-up or no Internet access in their practices.

ConnecttheDocs involves the physician community with technology vendors, universities and academic centers, and regional organizations throughout Pennsylvania.

One of the challenges that Pennsylvania, and many other geographically large states face, is geographic disparities in the distribution of health services. More than 3 million Pennsylvanians are located more than 25 miles from the nearest Pennsylvania-based high-risk pregnancy specialist. Travel times are long for, say, a pregnant woman with complications. This leads to high risks.

Pennsylvanians are aging, and so are physicians as insufficient numbers of younger docs replace them. Thus, state ranks 37th in the U.S. for the ratio of actively practicing physicians per 10,000 elderly citizens. The concentration of elderly citizens is greater in the rural areas of the state. The rural elderly who have to travel long distances to specialists may be less likely to seek treatment, even for potentially life-threatening conditions. Telemedicine could ameliorate this disparity.

While 96% of physicians in Pennsylvania have Internet access, only 26% use a T-1 line, the type of broadband often necessary for connectivity in health applications. Only 9% utilize telemedicine. 20% employ electronic medical records systems, with the most common applications for viewing lab and radiology results and patients’ medical histories.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:
Consider the fact that many consumers have faster broadband access in their homes than clinicians have in their practices. Most of us probably assume our physicians use fast Internet speeds in their workplace, the place that delivers health care. As we allocate more of our personal, state and federal fiscal resources to health care, the investment in broadband is a no-brainer. It’s infrastructure for public health, pure and simple.