Right now, the state of Illinois is in the midst of developing its broadband infrastructure. And, there are so many interested parties out there, either keeping a watchful eye on the development, or actively taking a role in shaping the future of Illinois broadband that the situation can become very convoluted.

Still, if you were to ask, most would agree that aside from the actual network infrastructure itself, one of the biggest needs lies with educating citizens on the use of high-speed broadband services. To that end, this month I will focus on the rural medical community’s use of broadband services.

Broadband allows patients in rural areas to access urban networks of specialists and experts. Charlene Shallow, Nurse Practitioner from Prairie Cardiovascular Consultants says, “Technology has assisted us in our ability to significantly impact the care that we provide in rural areas in many ways.  In cardiology we are now able to read a number of tests that are done in outlying facilities.”

Just think of that! During an emergency, rather than waiting to be rushed to a specialist who may be many miles away, patients can now have their tests sent ahead of them. The time saved can mean the difference between life and death. And, there are so many more potential applications.

The American Medical Association (AMA)comes down heavily in favor of broadband use in mobile health as a new frontier in health innovation. By employing broadband technology, physicians download diagnostic data, lab results, images and drug information to handheld devices like PDAs and smartphones. Emergency medical responders use field laptops to keep track of patient information and records. Patients use health monitoring devices and sensors that accompany them everywhere. These aren’t plans for the future. These types of applications are happening now.

“In Cardiology we also have the ability to do ECG analysis from the ambulance. This can save precious time. Now if a patient activates 911, the ambulance arrives, does an ECG and remotely sends it to the physician for an instant read. If it appears they are having a heart attack, they are diverted to the city instead of going to their local facility. In a heart emergency saving precious minutes can make all the difference because ‘time is muscle’ when you are having a heart attack,” says Shallow.

And there is a huge cost savings inherent in utilizing broadband services as well. According to one study often cited by the AMA, electronic health record systems have the potential to generate net savings of $371 billion for hospitals and $142 billion for physician practices from safety and efficiency gains over 15 years. Potential savings from preventing disease and better managing chronic conditions could double these estimates.

Hosted Electronic Health Record (EHR) solutions tend to be more affordable and easier-to-manage alternatives for small physician practices and clinics. In certain settings, they cost on average 20 percent less than on-site solutions, reduce the need for internal IT expertise and provide timely updates to clinical decision-support tools. The e-prescribing component of EHRs helps avert known drug allergic reactions and potentially dangerous drug interactions.

And of course, with broadband extended services available not only at the doctor’s office, but also in the patient’s home, even more applications become possible in the realm of remote patient monitoring. This enables early detection of health problems, usually before the onset of noticeable symptoms.

“We have patients who have special pacemakers and for them we now have a baby monitor type device that sits beside the bed and downloads information, alerting us to subtle changes that could indicate potential future problems,” says Shallow. Earlier detection allows earlier treatment and, therefore, better outcomes. For example, after an initial hospitalization for heart failure, 60 percent of patients are readmitted at least once within six to nine months.

Keep in mind that all of these solutions are in their infancy. If you were to compare all of the applications available just a few years ago to what is available today, the differences would be amazing. And, where we’re going is going to be even more fantastic.

Ed VanHoose is the Digital Communications Administrator/IT Manager for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives in Springfield.