Planning For the Future of Patient Care: Telehealth and Broadband Access
It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected rural hospitals in many ways, but one aspect that may come as a surprise to some—particularly amid today’s technology-focused society—is that many rural hospitals serve communities that still lack basic Internet access. Although the majority of Americans consider Internet access a basic necessity for day-to-day life, not all people have this luxury.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated in 2018 that 25 percent of rural Americans were lacking broadband internet access, compared to only 2 percent of their urban counterparts. This inequality was brought into sharp focus over the past 18 months, as 17 million Americans living in rural communities were unable to visit their doctors and obtain needed treatment via online platforms.
This lack of access, paired with the increasing reliance on online tools for various aspects of life, including education and work, makes it increasingly evident that changes need to be made to help get these rural communities up to speed.
During the pandemic, the demand for telehealth services skyrocketed, which challenged physicians and patients who lacked access to reliable internet coverage. In addition, hospitals were faced with other new challenges, such as providing COVID-19 data to the government for reporting, tracking and documenting the use of Provider Relief Funds.
In-person medical care has also become more reliant on technology. Rural hospitals tend to pay more for Internet and telecommunications services, making it difficult for them to keep up with the latest advancements.
USAC Relief Funding
So, how can rural hospitals get the technological support they need? Fortunately, there are options available. The Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC) is a government-funded program that helps rural hospitals lower the cost of telecommunications and Internet services through funding. Although the use of these funds is specific, they can be used for needs including increasing bandwidth and certain equipment and infrastructure.
Additional federal funding for USAC is continuing to unfold, bringing the opportunity for broadband access to more of rural America. The funding is available, but hospitals need to be aware of the time and effort required to receive funding support.
Qualifying for USAC funds can be an arduous process. The timeline to plan, apply, and petition for obtaining broadband connectivity funding can take months or even years. Hospitals need to be planning and applying to USAC at least 9 to 12 months in advance of when they need the resources. For example, this year applications were due in May 2021, but funds may not be distributed until late 2022.
The submission deadline for the next funding cycle is April 1, 2022. Funds for those award applicants should be made available in early 2023.
If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that widespread Internet access is required for rural communities to receive the care they need. Another key lesson is that it’s vital for healthcare providers to be prepared.
The main point: If your hospital needs additional bandwidth or technology, the time to act is now. Regardless of whether the COVID-19 pandemic improves or worsens over the coming months, it is critical that hospitals formulate a plan that adequately addresses their rising needs.
CHC Consulting has helped more than 500 healthcare providers in 41 states receive over $35 million in USAC funds. Read more about CHC USAC Services or contact us to learn how we can help your hospital.
For more information on the services offered and to determine eligibility for your site, click here.