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Oct. 30, 2018

High-speed internet could be key for medically underserved areas

Michigan State University researchers suggest improved broadband high-speed internet access in rural areas could support better care for patients in medically underserved areas.

In a recent position statement published by the Society of Behavioral Medicine, Sabrina Ford and Kelly Hirko, in the College of Human Medicine, claim telemedicine, which requires high-speed internet access, would promote better communications between physicians and patients. It would also allow doctors in rural areas to share images with specialists elsewhere and help rural patients comply with prevention and treatment advice from their doctors.

“We have some people driving two plus hours to get to the cancer center” at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, said Hirko, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Due to lack of transportation or other barriers, some fail to keep follow-up appointments or don’t seek medical care at all.

In their position statement, co-authored by colleagues at six other universities, Ford and Hirko urged the federal government to:

  • Promote the National Broadband Plan, enacted by Congress in 2010 to ensure affordable high-speed internet access to 100 million homes
  • Appropriate money to meet the internet access needs of vulnerable, rural residents
  • Spend up to $40 billion to build and upgrade broadband infrastructure in rural areas

About 381,000 households in Michigan, nearly all in rural areas, don’t have high-speed internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Bridging that digital divide will require more than infrastructure, Hirko said.

“Affordability is the key,” she said, suggesting that subsidies will be necessary so low-income residents can afford the service. “It shouldn’t be about who can afford to get access.”

She and Ford indicated the FCC should reverse its decision to repeal its net neutrality rules, enacted in 2015 to prevent internet service providers from charging more for high-quality service.

Their position statement has been well received, with some elected officials expressing support for improving broadband access in rural areas.

Ford, an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Biology, is organizing a symposium on rural broadband to be held next April at a National Cancer Institute meeting in Washington, D.C.

“People in poor, rural geographic areas are dying at a greater rate,” Ford said. In many cases, “people get a diagnosis, and they don’t follow up. That’s one of the largest problems in medicine. This crosses all ethnicities. It’s really an important national concern.”


By: Geri Kelley