Bridging the Digital Divide: Expanding Internet and Rural Healthcare Access

Internet access has been mainstream for about 25 years now. Since the days when almost every American household received an AOL installation disc in the mail, it seems the Internet has grown into a digital behemoth connecting every person across every nation. Political movements, social evolutions and some of the most powerful companies in the world have all started online. The Internet has impacted every industry – and that includes healthcare, particularly in regard to telemedicine.

But while it may seem like everyone has Internet access, many parts of the Earth don’t. That includes areas of the United States. Sometimes Internet service providers won’t cover those regions; other times the access is there, but residents can’t afford the necessary devices and data plans to use it.

This presents virtual health providers with a conundrum. The crux of telemedicine is extending access to care. Yet patients without Internet access are also likely to lack specialist care and medical expertise in their community – making them the ones who need telemedicine the most.

This gap between those with Internet access and those without is called the Digital Divide and it’s a serious roadblock for the healthcare industry. It’s not just outdated models of care delivery leaving rural communities behind; technology barriers are roadblocking better health as well.

Rural Gaps in Care

Rural communities and remote areas often struggle with a shortage of healthcare providers. In America, both specialists and general practitioners tend to gravitate to urban areas that offer a broader patient pool. This can leave rural residents without a local primary care provider or even a local hospital. Telemedicine can help in multiple ways – like faster appointments and better preventive care. Patients can potentially avoid the cost of traveling to distant hospitals or treating an advanced condition. Small hospitals can also create a sustainable income stream by offering telemedicine services that connect their patient base with remote specialty services.

But those benefits hinge on reliable Internet connection – and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that 31 percent of American rural households still lack access to broadband Internet. Neilsen Online reports 43.2 percent of the world’s population doesn’t use the Internet due to connectivity issues and a lack of modern technology.

Bringing Care to the Disconnected

To solve these gaps, both healthcare organizations and technology titans have launched programs to expand global Internet access – opening a path to new virtual health possibilities.

  • Google’s subsidiary Loon has created an aerial wireless network to bring Internet access to rural areas, including some of Kenya’s most remote regions.
  • Facebook is building orbital lasers and satellites to get rural residents online and spark socioeconomic growth.
  • The FCC's Rural Health Care Program supplies eligible healthcare providers with funding for broadband and telecommunications services that support digital and virtual health projects.
  • The American Medical Association has adopted a policy to increase American Internet accessby expanding broadband and wireless connectivity in underserved areas of the U.S. to "ensure equal access to digital health tools that require connectivity."
  • Microsoft’s Airband Initiative leverages the unused spectrum between TV stations to deliver internet connectivity to underserved communities. The company’s report about their initiative, “A Rural Broadband Strategy,” noted that “Investing more resources to improve the connectivity of broadband to hospitals and healthcare providers based in rural communities would likely yield better services in health protection and restore greater efficiency to wellness programs for those in need.”

In the 21st century, opportunities for employment, education and healthcare are inseparable from Internet access. Virtual health possibilities are closing the gaps in healthcare with a sustainable care delivery model but disadvantaged areas benefit the most when technology gaps are closed as well. In shrinking the Digital Divide, telemedicine and technology leaders are creating a synergy that can open healthcare doors across the globe.

To learn more about how to improve rural health outcomes through the use of virtual health technologies, get our special report “Improving Rural Health with Responsible Virtual Care”.

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