Can telemedicine help communities justify better broadband?

Telemedicine –using telecommunications to enhance medical and healthcare delivery – is lauded for advancing the public good, improving the quality of life and transforming the patient/doctor relationship for the betterment of both. Broadband-driven telemedicine also impacts economic development. But are communities prepared to ride this particular technology wave to better economic health?

The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) indicated in a survey this month that 43 percent of its members think broadband-enabled medical and healthcare services are a primary economic issue for them. And 28 percent see these services indirectly impacting their local economy. Contrary to conventional wisdom that rural communities have the greater need for telemedicine services, survey results show urban and suburban communities are just as likely rural ones to place high economic value on telemedicine.

But only in a third of the cases do respondents say their communities’ current available broadband speeds are sufficient to attract new physicians, enable video-delivered health services and attract medical research projects. Similar percentages say the current service is adequate, but could be better, indicating that these speeds will be less useful as telemedicine apps increase in number and capacity requirements.

Are the Net speeds and service quality that constituents , actually receive sufficient to affect these healthcare outcomes?

Are the Net speeds and service quality that constituents , actually receive sufficient to affect these healthcare outcomes?

Broadband-driven healthcare delivery – a sleeping giant?

Average citizens typically view economic development as tactics used to attract new businesses, retain current ones and overall promote the community’s image. What they may not be seeing are activities happening, often behind the scenes, that both advance the use of medical technology and strengthen the local economy.

The small town of Danville, Virginia (population: 43,000) started its nDanville fiber network commercially in 2006 to tackle a 19 percent unemployment rate. The Danville Regional Medical Center has several clinics around town that move a lot of data among the facilities. They used the nDanville network to not only move massive data, but also to develop a quality and quantity of medical services that make them a major draw for businesses looking to re-locate to the town.

Danville Regional opened a new facility and partnered with the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine for its residency program. This subsequently drew a sizeable number of younger professionals to the area who stayed and opened their own practices.

Danville is a good example of turning the marriage of broadband with the leading-edge telemedicine technologies into local economic gain thanks to improving the business climate for healthcare, boost services and market those newfound services like crazy.

It’s not just Danville. Radiologist Dr. Jim Busch is one of Chattanooga’s premier medical business stories. He brought the city’s radiologists under one organization, Radiology Associates, and through gigabit connections from their respective homes linked everyone to each other and to the city’s hospitals. Dr. Busch wrote software to enable the group to deliver new services.

mobile app doctor surgery

The network and software together allow them to serve more hospitals and patients, grow and expand the business, and create another hook that draws individuals and businesses to town. Kansas City plans to use its gigabit Google Fiber network to link local medical facilities with national, and possibly international, hospitals and experts to give local residents a smorgasbord of top quality healthcare that attracts individuals and families.

Shifting into 100-gig overdrive

The Illinois Medical District plans to take broadband and telemedicine to new levels with a new 100-gigabit network. In what might be a model for the rest of the country, the Illinois district includes 560 acres of medical research facilities, labs, a biotech business incubator, universities, and more than 40 healthcare related facilities, all connected by fiber. District Executive Director Warren Ribley expects this $4 million investment “really will set us apart, and also be a significant economic development driver to attract additional researchers and private-sector businesses.”

The Illinois Medical District typifies a point presented earlier regarding the seemingly equal need for faster, better broadband within urban communities as much as rural areas. Many federal grant money for broadband, such as the 2009 broadband stimulus or the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF), target rural communities. But in big-city Chicago where one would expect to find an abundance of internet capacity, “The District is in a broadband desert,” states Ribley.

Sometimes hospitals now have to put research onto a CD and deliver it to another hospital, or buy access to more commercial bandwidth to swap files. Hospitals have complained about slow speeds that hamper transferring large images, like X-rays or MRI scans, as well as video conferencing among physicians. One hospital has access to a 250 Mbps (about a quarter of a gigabit) circuit, but that is quickly becoming inadequate.

As it becomes more apparent to economic developers and broadband project teams that telemedicine has great potential to directly or indirectly improve local economies in both urban as well as rural areas, expect more projects of this type. Going back to those IEDC members surveyed, 44 percent say they plan to have representatives from their medical communities directly involved with the broadband planning efforts.

After all better community health improves economic health.

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.