Fiber Optics and Rural Medicine: Healthcare at the Speed of Light

As healthcare professionals rely more on electronic medical records, tests, images, videos and other multimedia files, high-speed broadband networks have increasingly become a necessary way to transfer and move this data. Unfortunately, however, rural hospitals and clinics have had a difficult time keeping pace with the need for new networks and fiber optic technologies.

To fill this gap and to make sure that rural hospitals stay up to speed, in 2007 the Federal Communication Commission established the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, which provides federal funding to help deploy broadband networks for rural hospitals.

The program set aside US$416 million in funding to cover, in conjunction with private investments, 62 projects nationwide. Now, three years later, many of these projects are coming to fruition, bringing higher-speed networks to patients and doctors in the most technologically remote areas of the country.

Speeding Up Western Nebraska

One example of how this initiative is taking shape is the Rural Nebraska Healthcare Network (RNHN), which serves nine hospitals and dozens of clinics in sparsely populated western Nebraska.

A combination of federal grants and private investing is allowing the network to upgrade to a fiber optics communication system that will improve the speed and quality of healthcare in the region.

Federal money will be covering 85 percent of the total $19.7 million cost of the project, and Zayo Bandwidth, a private, Colorado-based company, is investing the remaining 15 percent of the project’s cost, along with some of the ongoing expenses. In return, Zayo will be selling the ability to use some of the fiber optic capability to other private companies. Omaha-based Adesta Group will be designing and constructing the network itself.

The main advantage of the 600-mile network, the construction of which will be commencing later this summer and will be completed around fall of 2011, is speed.

“The fiber system will allow for transferring what currently takes 30 minutes to 3 seconds,” Todd Sorensen, president and CEO of Regional West Health Services in Scottsbluff, Neb., told TechNewsWorld. “It’ll be a huge difference, a huge increase in speed.”

Large files like radiology images will be able to be transferred quickly and easily with the new system.

The Tele-Revolution

The new network in Nebraska will also provide more opportunities for teleconferencing, med checks, tele-ER, telepharmacy, video training, and other applications.

“We’ll be able to provide a tele-consultation for emergency rooms,” said Sorensen. “We do it now, but it’s slow. It’s slow enough that it gets underutilized.

“For consumers of healthcare, they may not really know it’s there unless they’re involved in a teleconference,” said Sorensen. “What patients will see is more access to telemedicine. They will also have quicker interpretation of their x-ray images.”

The new system will also let patients in rural areas have their health checked without having to be transported to a larger medical center or hospital.

“We can help them avoid unnecessary transport,” said Sorensen.

In addition to the benefits to consumers, the faster fiber optic network will provide benefits to providers, who will be able to better connect with each other, urban research centers, and training opportunities worldwide.

“There will be better access to continuing medical education for providers,” said Sorensen. “We think this is a fabulous opportunity for healthcare. It will dramatically help our ability to communicate.”

Broader Uses

In all of the projects funded by the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, private investment and the availability of cable capacity for non-healthcare purposes are built into the system. In Nebraska’s case, there will be a bundle of 72 fibers in the new network, 24 of which will be dedicated to healthcare purposes and 48 of which will be used by other companies. This will increase the speed and capacity of communications throughout rural Nebraska.

The selling of network capacity to non-medical companies, however, will not interfere with the medical uses of the network, since the portion set aside for medical uses will be sufficient for the needs of the hospitals and clinics involved.

“We will have a dedicated network, and we’ll never see a degradation of service because of competition,” explained Sorensen.

“It’s all about the applications that you can put on it,” Joel Mulder, senior director of business development for Adesta, told TechNewsWorld. “The fiber optic network gives that large pipe so applications can get there more quickly.”

The project is appealing to Zayo because of the opportunities it will provide for profit.

“While we’re putting in the network to support the hospitals, we’re also putting in a cable that can be used for multiple purposes,” explained Mulder.

“We’re providing cash funding in exchange for the right to use fibers on the network,” Chris Morley, CFO for Zayo Bandwidth, told TechNewsWorld. “We think that’s an asset we can monetize over the course of time. We will look to leverage that network and target it to commercial enterprises.”

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