A new, federally funded project aims to improve access to remote telehealth services in rural Alaska by mapping broadband internet access across the state.
The $8 million in funding announced on Monday by Eric Hargan, deputy secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, will be used to develop a broadband pilot program in rural parts of Alaska, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia.
The three-year program will allow federal officials to gather data on broadband capacity across the four states. That data will be used to determine where and how to best allocate resources that improve access to broadband internet-based health services in rural regions.
Practicing medicine virtually is particularly useful for rural patients because it allows them to access health services they otherwise would have to travel for, health officials say. Telehealth also makes monitoring certain medical conditions from afar more doable, and it has become even more essential during the pandemic.
However, extremely limited and often expensive broadband access throughout much of Alaska has made the internet-dependent practice difficult in some places.
While it is known that rural places have much more limited internet access, Hargan said this detailed assessment was needed before more federal resources could be distributed to address the problem.
“To be able to assess where the need is — about what kind of resources communities have — is the first step,” said Hargan, who addressed reporters at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium on Monday. “A lot of this really is informational, trying to get at the issue.”
“Once the assessments are done in the four states and we get information on the lay of the land, we can better address” the problem, he added. Preliminary results are likely within a year, he said.
The areas of the state that fall under the program include the Aleutians West Borough, the Bristol Bay Borough, the Dillingham Census Area, the Nome Census Area, the North Slope Borough and the Northwest Arctic Borough.
A shift toward virtual medical visits has been happening in Alaska for years — and has been accelerated in-state and nationwide by the coronavirus pandemic, which complicated in-person health care visits.
“Just this year, I believe we have seen many years’ worth of expansion and advancement in telehealth,” Hargan said. “It is indeed one of the silver linings of this pandemic.”
The country went from having about 15,000 telehealth visits a week in February 2020 to 1.7 million per week at the peak of the pandemic, Hargan said.
Telehealth is not new to Alaska: Pre-pandemic, more than 250 providers statewide were licensed to use telemedicine, which is defined by division of public health in Alaska as “the practice of caring for a patient when the patient and provider are not physically together ... using technology such as video conferencing and smartphones without the need for an in-person visit.”
Telemedicine refers specifically to remote clinical services, whereas telehealth is a broader term for the practice of health-related care that uses technology.
Some providers and public health officials told the Daily News this summer that while telehealth can in many cases be helpful, virtual doctor’s visits are often no substitute for in-person care. They cited limited broadband access as a main obstacle to the practice, noting that internet costs can be astronomical even in places where access is spotty.
In Alaska, the funds will be managed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which views the funding as a means to eventually improve access to remote care, according to a recent statement.
“This funding will allow us to know the quality of the connection in advance, increasing success for patients and avoiding a very labor-intensive process of testing connectivity,” the consortium said in the statement. “(We) will learn about, measure, and report the data it finds regarding the quality and speed of connectivity in rural areas.”