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Community Broadband Programs Bring Telehealth to Underserved Populations

In a new podcast, Craig Settles explains how underserved populations can gain access to telehealth and other resources through the development of community broadband programs.

By Eric Wicklund

– The key to telehealth expansion in underserved communities, says Craig Settles, may very well be the development of community broadband programs.

Settles, a broadband and telehealth consultant, says both urban and rural areas struggle to access reliable broadband, the foundation on which connected health programs are built. With that access controlled in large part by corporations, it’s important to develop community partnerships that give underserved residents an opportunity to schooling, library services and healthcare.

“There are segments of the country that (broadband providers) do not consider worth their time,” he says. But a community broadband program will pool resources and create access points, and “having all those access points enables them to provide services” to people at home, or at alternative locations.

Settles, who says telehealth saved his life when he suffered a stroke on a weekend several years ago, was a recent guest of Xtelligent Healthcare Media’s Healthcare Strategies podcast series. His support for community broadband is evidenced in a pilot telehealth program he recently launched in Cleveland and 10 other cities.

In that program, Settles is organizing partnerships between healthcare providers and barbershops or hair salons (his Cleveland sites are partnering with the Cleveland Clinic). While getting their hair done, customers are encouraged to have their blood pressure checked via an mHealth device, and are given information on high blood pressure or referred directly to a care provider based on the results.

“The barbershop represents getting people comfortable with the idea” of telehealth, he says. “People who don’t normally go see a doctor, be it because of insurance or whatever,” are intrigued by the idea of virtual care if introduced to it in a community setting.

Settles sees his pilot program in three stages. The first focuses on mHealth testing, and the second will explore how other telehealth services could be introduced in a barbershop, salon or similar community gathering.

And the third focuses on developing community broadband programs that extend high-speed access to these and other locations – locations where access is limited due to cost, excessive data caps or a lack of resources or infrastructure.

To develop these programs, he says, communities need to look at federal and state funding opportunities, such as those offered by the Federal Communications Commission, and pool together businesses, schools, libraries and healthcare providers who would benefit from reliable access to broadband services. This, in turn, would make that community more robust.

“That’s what incites people to build these broadband networks in the first place,” he says. “If I can deliver economic development by making the local healthcare system more robust, people are going to go for that.”