Health is one area where rural broadband can change lives, even save lives.
Broadband gives health professionals and patients fast access to resources and expertise. In rural areas this would often be difficult, expensive or time-consuming to get any other way.
Broadband helps move patient records and test results. It’s fast and can be secure. Thanks to broadband a single medical specialist can serve a larger geographic area.
A Ministry of Health press release says hospitals and health centers in country areas benefit from the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative.
To date 18 rural hospitals or health centres that have either already connected to the RBI network or are connecting.
The Ministry of Health identified a total of 37 rural centres that could use broadband. Which means the job is still only half-done. Over time all, or almost all, will have fibre.
Health is the focus. Yet, running broadband to rural hospitals, health centres and clinics has another benefit. The buildings often act as centres in civil emergencies.
After the Kaikoura earthquake, the town’s local clinic became a communications hub. Crowds gathered outside the building to use connections to let their families know they were safe.
Hokianga Hospital in Rawene recently got its fibre connection.
John Wigglesworth, CEO of Hokianga Health Enterprise Trust says fast broadband makes a difference. He says: “The technology improves data linkages between the hospital and its central GP clinic in Rawene with its nine primary health clinics situated in remote locations throughout the Hokianga.
Rural health video consultations
“This data network means patients don’t have to remember details or repeat their medical history if they go to any of the clinical locations. Medical staff don’t spend so much time re-gathering information that’s already available in the central database.”
Wigglesworth says the hospital uses tele-medicine. Patients in remote areas can have video consultations. The obvious benefit of this is that health professionals spend less time on travel, there’s also a cost saving from this.
He says the hospital also uses these links for planning and administration.
In a similar way, staff can take part in online training sessions. Again, without the need for travel.
Hokianga Hospital uses fibre to send x-rays to radiologists and specialists for diagnosis. In the past couriers handled this. Broadband means responses can be instant — and that can be vital in some cases.
Wigglesworth says: “Having improved internet services available to parts of the community means people who are connected will be able to access their own health information via a patient portal.
“This means they will be able to check their lab results without having to phone their clinic, look up what vaccinations they’ve had and medications they’re taking, and review their medical history. The patient portal provides an opportunity to save everyone – patients, clinicians and administration staff – time. It also enables people to play a greater part in managing their own health care.”
There are still gaps in broadband coverage. The second phase of RBI and UFB will take broadband further into rural areas. Most likely it will mean fibre in places with wireless networks filling the gaps. For some people in remote areas, boosted cellular coverage will give them mobile internet.
Wigglesworth helped ISPs with proposals that could give fibre connections to remote clinics in the area.
He says:“The goal is for our rural health services to have equitable access to the same digital technologies available to urban centres, technology which ultimately contributes to improving health care outcomes for all.”