October 13, 2020 — Shortcomings in telehealth services were revealed when the COVID-19 crisis caused telehealth visits to skyrocket nearly overnight.
“Consumers were only sort of ready, and we as providers were definitely not ready,” said Dr. Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital, during a virtual webinar, which aired as part of Broadband Communities 2020 Virtual Summit in September.
During the event, a panel of broadband infrastructure and telehealth professionals moderated by John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition, discussed the amplified use of telehealth services and ways to overcome limitations. Those limits have become apparent in attempts to connect hospitals, clinics, and consumers at home.
“Telehealth begins with connectivity,” said Matt McCullough, associate director of the Utah Telehealth Network, a service which links patients to health care providers by using leading edge telecommunications technology. “Our goal is to get reliable networks into rural communities to make sure clinics have accurate bandwidth.”
According to McCullough, while most education sites have access to Gigabit connections, healthcare sites experience much more problems with bandwidth and variances in internet speeds.
While some healthcare facilities have 100 Megabit per second broadband speeds, “small rural clinics rely on 25 [Megabits per second] Mbps connections.” Further, at “clinics located on Najavo reservations, even accessing a 25 Mbps connection is difficult,” said McCullough.
Attempting to contest telehealth limitations, Robert Wack, city council president of Westminster, Maryland, who led the planning and construction of Westminster Fiber Network, said he hopes the fiber infrastructure benefits users within the community. Wack reported that the city has been successfully employing remote patient monitoring systems, to reduce the amount of times that patients have to return to hospitals.
While the panel detailed some success, Schwartz projected that there is much more on the horizon when it comes to improving telehealth accessibility around the country.
Schwartz called for utilizing artificial intelligence to improve delivery of service, and more tedious processes, like workflow, documentation, and billing.
McCullough recommended integrating telehealth into schools to ease the burden on school nurses, who often have to travel to many different school districts a day to serve students.