ONC is helping veterans access their electronic health records

Brett Coughlin | April 17, 2014

Go where they are.

In this case, “they” represents rural veterans and Medicare patients. On their way to meet them is a group of Federal partners – including ONC, telecommunication companies – known in industry parlance as “telecos” — and other stakeholders who are pushing to bring broadband to the heartland.

Increasing patient access to electronic health records is a priority for ONC and also happens to be a major part of regulations that set out the stage 2 meaningful use criteria. Eligible professionals, such as doctors and hospitals, covered under the regs are required to “provide patients the ability to view online, download, and transmit their health information within 4 business days of the information being available.” The regs also require that more than 50% of patients seen by eligible professionals must have the same “timely access” to their health data (take a look at the stage 2 grid of requirements).

But just because there are regulations calling for the electronic access to this data doesn’t mean everyone has the technology available to make that happen. We know that stringing fiber optic cable down every dirt road, in every county of every rural state in the country to help these regs become a reality is a daunting prospect.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that regulates the telecommunications industry, encourages the deployment of broadband to rural communities through several programs.  One of these programs, the Healthcare Connect Fund, provides support to eligible health care providers for broadband connectivity and broadband networks.

A recent round table discussion on Capitol Hill, hosted by the Rural Broadband Coalition, or NTCA (formerly the National Telecommunications Association) touched on ways to conquer the challenges of broadband adoption in rural communities. The roundtable included representatives from the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Congress of American Indians, the FCC and the Department of Commerce – among others. After perusing a new White Paper External Links Disclaimer on the challenges of bringing broadband to these communities, the groups put their heads together to look for ways to make broadband a reality in the vast tracks of rural America.

“We walked away from this event with promising ideas and next steps for public/private collaborations with rural telecos in Iowa, Kansas and Texas,” Leila Samy, ONC’s rural health information technology coordinator, tells the Buzz blog.

“We identified challenges to broadband deployment and adoption, including cost and usability by clinics, hospitals and patients,” said Samy, who, with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), recently launched a four-state pilot to hook up vets electronically with non-VA providers through an electronic health record.

A recent study sheds a little light on the gap between the extents to which urban dwellers are benefitting from increased broadband adoption compared to rural residents.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a subsidiary of the Department of Commerce, reported in June 2012 that “a substantial rural/urban gap in broadband availability existed,” according to the White Paper.

The new paper, released by an NTCA economist, reported the study’s findings that:

Nearly 100 % of urban residents have access to download speeds of 10 Mbps, versus only 82 % of rural residents that have similar access.

The telecos are building business cases – and seeking out government grants and other incentives – to help bump up the percentage of rural residents who will be able to use the internet. “We hope that the round table participants will be able to leverage their unique skills and resources to help address the specific barriers to broadband adoption,” Samy said.

This is the latest in a series of events convened by various Federal partners to help rural veterans and Medicare patients achieve better access to their data through Health IT. Watch for more and please weigh in below if you have a comment or idea.