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Expansion of broadband to help rural medical services

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need to expand broadband infrastructure as a critical and necessary piece of the nation’s overall infrastructure needs, according to U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D- N.H.) during roundtable discussion held Friday.

Hassan hosted a virtual roundtable discussion regarding the need to expand broadband access in the state and nationwide, especially in rural areas.

“Broadband isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity,” Hassan said. “Especially in rural New Hampshire it is important to ensure all Granite Staters can get reliable broadband.”

One of the focal points for Hassan is expanding telehealth access for state residents.

Coös County Family Health Services Chief Executive Officer Ken Gordon said that broadband access was important to his organization prior to the pandemic as they were using it for speciality services, specifically pediatric specialty services.

During an interview Monday morning, Gordon explained that for the last couple of years Coös County Family Health Services has been connecting with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center via a video link for specialty care providers in the area of pediatric care. He noted that families would normally be required to travel approximately two hours each way to receive in person medical care and that often such trips were inconvenient.

He said patients come into the clinic and the clinic provides the telehealth link so that patients could receive medical care/advice. He added that sometimes that interaction involved a doctor at Dartmouth interacting with a nurse at the clinic who might assist the doctor in observing a patient through the video link. Other times it may simply be the parents interacting with the doctor and asking questions regarding their child’s specific needs.

During Friday’s discussion, Gordon mentioned that community health centers throughout the state use broadband access in the form of telehealth for regular primary care, behavioral health services and for disciplines such as teledentistry. He said his hope was that his organization could continue to offer these forms of care and more in the future. He said that patients like the program and that it creates efficiencies, especially in a rural environment.

Gordon also said one of the things he would like to see in the future is programs to assist patients in learning how to use the relevant telehealth technology.

Gordon followed up his desire on Monday by noting that around 20 to 40 percent of residents in Coös County haven’t had exposure to telehealth options due to affordability and access of broadband in their area and that it might help to familiarize them with the approach.

Gordon also noted that New Hampshire is one of the oldest states in the country by average age of residents and that technology could be helpful for those who may have difficulties in making it to the clinics. He also noted difficulties during winter months of traveling long distances to make doctor’s appointments and in person meetings and that technology could help to bridge that gap.

“Telehealth doesn’t replace face-to-face visits, but it can be a complement to face-to-face,” he said.

Gordon said that during the pandemic, over half of doctor’s visits were being done through telehealth and that it would be an important method of patient-doctor interaction going forward.

During Friday’s discussion, Hassan said she recently introduced a bill to expand telehealth options and that it would be important moving forward.

Hassan also said she recently reintroduced the Rural Broadband Financing Flexibility Act. She noted that the purpose of the act would be to provide state and local governments with innovative financing options as a way to give state and local governments the tools to invest in their own broadband infrastructure.

In addition to the act, Hassan also said that the Federal Communications Commission approved $7.17 billion in relief funding to expand broadband access to schools and libraries. Ramesh Nagarajan with the FCC said that the window for schools and libraries to apply to receive some of the funds would open on June 29.

Hassan noted that all the various funding mechanisms being discussed would focus first on unserved and underserved areas with the goal of getting that funding to state and local governments to give them freedom to act according to their respective needs.