Two important rural issues are beginning to intersect: lack of access to health care and poor broadband connections in many rural communities. This has given rise to growing conversations around telemedicine.
The way these two issues play out highlights the continued disparities rural Georgians face in their ability to access the infrastructure, resources, and services they need to thrive. But, one of these issues — health care — is so partisan it’s hard to get any movement on; while the other — broadband — is seeing a growing consensus that an investment from the government is a good idea.
And now, at the center of all this, is a push to increase access to telemedicine to improve rural Georgian’s access to health care. But for telemedicine to become a viable policy solution — whatever its strengths and weaknesses may be — policymakers are going to have to make investments in the infrastructure that support access to health care and access to broadband. They’ll need to see both as investments that improve the lives of citizens and better position them to lead healthy, productive lives.
A recent report from Augusta University points to an aging rural population, whose health care needs are only going to increase. Telemedicine, the report says, is a way to connect experts at better-resourced hospitals with rural hospitals. Patients and their families no longer have to travel to the nearest big city to get critical health care and access to experts.
But, for this to work, rural hospitals will need to be able to access high quality, reliable broadband networks in order to share electronic medical records and allow patients to video chat with a doctor in another city.
Earlier this year, the legislature launched the Joint High-Speed Broadband Communications Access for all Georgians Study Committee (phew say that five times fast). That is they decided the lack of access to broadband in rural communities was enough of a problem they need to start figuring out solutions.
That study committee just released their report, highlighting a mix of strategies the state can use to address rural broadband issues, from tax incentives to right-of-way law changes. And their report, while focused on what it takes to build out rural broadband infrastructure, touches on telemedicine, recognizing that health care is an important reason for investing in broadband. Education and economic development are the other big areas where broadband investments can make a difference, in addition to impacting people’s day-to-day access to the internet.
With the legislative session starting in just under a week, we’ll have to see what, if anything, lawmakers decide to do on these important issues once they convene.