How Telehealth Relies On Quality Internet Infrastructure

Trent S. Anderson

By Trent S. Anderson, chief revenue officer, Bluebird Network.

Virtual services have now become the new normal with telehealth being a prime example. Now if we want an annual checkup or consultation, we can talk to a doctor from the comfort of our own home. But why haven’t we always taken advantage of this virtual alternative?

Until the pandemic highlighted the need for more digital services and flexibility, the healthcare industry had been hesitant to embrace virtual alternatives like telehealth. Traditionally, both patients and doctors have (understandably) preferred in-person visits and consultations. Patients believed in-person visits were more thorough, personal, and safe, while providing an opportunity to become more comfortable with their providers.

In the height of the pandemic, physicians and healthcare professionals worked hard to mitigate exposure by avoiding unnecessary contact with others. Sometimes, in-person follow-up appointments just weren’t necessary. Rather than risk unnecessary exposure, doctors and healthcare facilities began embracing telehealth — virtual visits leveraging telecommunications technology.

During this time, patients were also worried about their access to quality healthcare as less and less in-person visits were possible. This inevitably fostered the rise of telehealth as a safe and effective way to address patient concerns without the physical risk. Since then, many physicians have become so dedicated to telehealth that they refuse to see patients exclusively in-person. Furthermore, it has spawned an entirely new medical practice with companies like Covenant Health Virtual Care, now employing doctors solely to provide virtual telemedicine services.

However – as many physicians and patients have learned – telehealth brings new challenges, and those problems are exacerbated in underserved communities with limited and unreliable Internet infrastructure. These communities tend to be far (the edge) from major cities where hospitals and medical practices are often located (the core), resulting in an even greater need for access to reliable telehealth services.

Without high-speed internet and reliable broadband solutions, patients are unable to expand their care to telehealth programs where they could communicate with exceptional doctors across the nation. Dropped calls and lag in video connection interrupt patient care, causing frustration and dissatisfaction with the telehealth experience.

One major solution to this problem, simply put, is dependable, low-latency internet service with the capability of supporting real-time, high-bandwidth solutions such as live video and streaming services. In order to provide reliable internet, a combination of last-mile and middle-mile transport or dark fiber deployment is required. “Dark fiber” is raw strands of fiber without lit services – such as internet – providing near limitless capacity to connect communities to communication hubs. Building middle-mile & even long-haul dark fiber to underserved communities enables cost-effective expansion opportunities and when designed effectively, offers diverse routing for a more robust connectivity experience.

What about HIPAA compliance?

HIPAA laws enforce rigorous practices to protect the privacy of medical documents. The penalties for violating these laws are steep. And, unfortunately, nearly 10 million medical records were exploited by hackers during a cyber-attack in September 2020. Even worse, the healthcare providers involved didn’t realize the data breaches occurred until sometime later.

How can smaller providers with limited IT resources protect themselves from large-scale attacks? By partnering with an industry leader specializing in healthcare solutions.

HIPAA-compliant data centers are designed for strict adherence to applicable laws and flexible enough to adapt as those laws change. They are designed to prevent a breach from occurring in the first place, eliminating the need for recovery altogether. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services admits that remote communication technologies don’t necessarily have to comply with HIPAA fully, patients still have strong expectations about the use and protection of their data. However, in the event an attack does take place, they are there for damage control.

What should healthcare institutions look for in a provider?

Healthcare institutions must partner with a provider who takes the time to understand their practice, patients, goals and industry standards in order to empower their facility with high-quality infrastructure, optimizing their digital practices and providing better care for patients.

Here are a few aspects of infrastructure to consider:

Diversity of routes – This refers to infrastructure that offers multiple paths of communication. For example, if one line connecting the institution with their provider is damaged, another maintains an active connection. It also means avoiding common connection points when possible (typically only found at each endpoint).

Alignment with goals – As we discussed, telehealth requires fast, reliable speeds with enough bandwidth to facilitate video conferencing and file transfers simultaneously. Providers should be able to discuss how their plans meet these goals.

Edge Data Centers – Data centers residing outside the major metro areas are a key to reducing miles of transport and allow healthcare applications to reside closer to the rural patient communities.

Protection from Natural Disasters – Storms,  earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters  can disrupt business communications. These disruptions can prove catastrophic when impacting healthcare providers. Ideally, a data center provider should be located underground or in arid environments to prevent disruptions from natural and manmade disasters.

Healthcare technology professionals should be asking whether their digital infrastructure is built to support telehealth in the future. As society becomes more dependent on digital services,  healthcare companies will need to establish partnerships with companies who can reliably provide the solutions they need: low latency transport connections and secure data edge centers. If these issues persist, any medical system can grind to a halt if service concerns go unchecked.

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