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Summit offers new insights about the future of telehealth, rural broadband in America

"This is the biggest opportunity to expand access to the internet since the internet was invented."

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Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist during his keynote at the Connected for Telehealth Summit

Virtual event (May 5, 2021) – Experts and industry insiders recently came together to discuss the ways the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the future of telehealth—and how it’s highlighted the need to expand and improve rural broadband.

“Those companies that didn’t necessarily see themselves as broadband stakeholders previously are now rallying around this issue,” said Dr. Christopher Fareed Ali, an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at Columbia University. “The pandemic changed that. It’s now an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Dr. Ali, who is also a Knight News Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, took part in the roundtable discussion entitled “Empowering Telehealth in a Connected Community.” It was one of two roundtables held during the “Connected for Telehealth Summit: Reimagining a Post-Pandemic World and the Lessons We’ve Learned.” 

"Munson, prior to the pandemic, didn't really have a telehealth footprint. We were talking about it, but then suddenly in a matter of weeks we had to stand up a program,” said Chris Kitchen, Enterprise Architect, Munson Healthcare. “Now, the need to improve broadband access and telehealth is an ongoing need and, after 2020, we are not putting the toothpaste back in the tube with this.”

The panelists as well as the keynote speaker, Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, reiterated throughout the summit that closing the Digital Divide affects just about every industry—and every person in America.

"Broadband has changed the way we do everything as we approach economic opportunity and development,” added Sarah Tennant, Sector Development Director & Cyber Initiatives, Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). “We have to work with all the state agencies. It's not going to be a simple fix. We need to understand from our perspective how to collaborate to expand access."

It was a sentiment the lieutenant governor echoed in his keynote.

"Reliable internet access is now recognized as the necessity that I believe it has been to take part fully in life. This is the biggest opportunity to expand access to the internet since the internet was invented,” said Lt. Gov. Gilchrist. “You should be able to log on regardless of where you live. Governor Whitmer and I recognize that there are generations of disparities that affect people of color. We are tackling issues of racial injustice—and connectivity is one of those key areas."   

The lieutenant governor also noted that to expand access, leaders must address issues like affordability and digital literacy—which can also limit access—and work closely with all stakeholders.  

“We need to think about how we can truly create connections. We can expand access by working alongside providers to reach areas that were previously inaccessible,” he said.

Barbara Main, the General Manager of Agri-Valley Services and Pigeon Telephone Company, says Internet Service Providers do have an important role to play in expanding and improving broadband access.

"The word ‘partnership’ is very important, and we need to partner to connect more people,” she said. “Do we have active conversations all the time? No, but we need to have more private-public partnerships when it comes to expanding broadband.”

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A senior consults with a doctor on his laptop

Let’s talk about telehealth

"Telemedicine is never going to look the same as it did before, but that's OK, because we are changing digital healthcare along with the times," said Laura Kilfoyle, Telemedicine Policy Specialist, Medicaid Program Policy Division, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Kilfoyle, who took part in the second roundtable entitled “Innovating During the Pandemic and Its Impact on the Future of Telehealth,” shared how state and federal policymakers shifted their approach during the pandemic.

“We have discretion over what types of telemedicine we allow. Our approach to telehealth—especially as it was really about increasing access to it—we knew that the prevailing word was ‘stay-at-home,’” said Kilfoyle.  

That shift in policy made it possible for healthcare providers to quickly pivot and begin offering telehealth to more patients while limiting both caretaker and patient exposure to the coronavirus.

"We had to pretty much dive right in. Last year, because of COVID-19, Medicare allowed us to begin providing therapy through telehealth,” said Scott Shelton, Assistant Vice President of Operations, Paragon Rehabilitations. “We quickly rolled out some resources to help the elder population, as well as others, to learn the telehealth space so that it was easy for them to navigate the technology.”

Each panelist emphasized that educational resources and support were “key” to providing effective telehealth services, especially for older populations, but they concurred that using a mix of older and newer technologies can help.

“When there is a health crisis, it puts older Americans at risk,” said Dr. Tom Kamber, Founder and Executive Director, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). “To help them understand what to do, we started working with outside foundations to educate the elderly on how to use telehealth devices and overcome that Digital Divide. We have to create multiple ways for people to use telehealth, it can't just be Zoom; sometimes it can just be a phone call."

Some healthcare providers also found that going into the home of a patient virtually had some unexpected benefits.

“While using telehealth, patients can go to their medicine cabinets and actually grab their medication and show their healthcare providers what they are having issues with,” said Chelsea Szafranski, System Director of Digital Health, Munson Healthcare. "But, again, education and reassurance are what's most important. We need our patients to know how to use telehealth devices and be confident when using them."

Telehealth has also expanded access to additional health disciplines and services to more people.

"The benefits of telehealth for people who struggle with mental health problems are huge!” said Dr. Kamber. “We found that people are more inclined to share and open up about their issues digitally while using telehealth.”

Kilfoyle, with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said policymakers both at the state and federal level are taking those lessons, as well as patient and provider feedback, into account as they look at how and when to reimburse telehealth services moving forward.

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"It is important that there is a real cross between both telehealth and in-person visits with your healthcare provider,” said Kilfoyle. “We are always open to feedback and open conversation from providers because we want to make telehealth inclusive to everyone." 

It is clear the approach to telehealth access in America will need to evolve as new technologies are explored, new policy decisions are made, and the emerging needs of both patients and providers are identified.

"Telehealth will definitely be an important part of the healthcare industry going forward and would continue to play an increasing role in patient care,” said Szafranski of Munson Healthcare. "Telehealth is still very new; we still have so much to learn including looking at how we can optimize the use of this technology. But if we just keep moving forward, telehealth will advance greatly." 

"We have to continue conversations about every aspect of telehealth,” said Shelton of Paragon Rehabilitations. “If we learned anything from last year, we learned that you never know what to expect.”

To learn more about the telehealth summit or to watch the roundtable discussions in their entirety, head to summit.

Additional resources:

Get the facts about telehealth these free downloadable resources