Federal officials say a $415 million information technology program approved six years ago to build broadband networks among rural healthcare providers is successful in reducing costs and enhancing healthcare quality.
The FCC created its Rural Health Care Pilot Program
in 2006 to provide an infrastructure for letting rural healthcare providers build networks connecting them to their urban counterparts. The initiative includes programs at 50 sites across 38 states. In many rural and underserved areas, the program brought broadband connectivity to those regions. The findings from the pilot program will be useful as the FCC develops a permanent program, the agency said in a 98-page report released Monday (PDF)
. As of January, $368 million of the $415 million available has been requested.
"The Pilot Program also demonstrates the cost savings, relative administrative simplicity and network-facilitating value of a consortium approach," the report stated. "When coupled with competitive bidding and multiyear funding, the consortium approach also has the potential to yield higher bandwidth, lower prices and better service quality for participating healthcare providers."
Some of the benefits included reduced wait times. The Palmetto State Providers Network, Cayce, S.C., reported it saved $18 million in Medicaid costs over 18 months as a result of having a telepsychiatry program through which consults are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: "Previously, patients would take up valuable healthcare provider time and resources by having to wait for days to receive psychiatric consults," the report said.
The report repeatedly mentioned the roles of urban healthcare providers and noted the benefits of their program participation. Many times urban providers were project leaders, proving administrative and technical resources and offering access to medical experts via telemedicine, the report stated.