Shirley Bloomfield sees an opportunity for a rural renaissance. But access to health care is vital.
The NTCA–Rural Broadband Association CEO discussed the intersection of rural health and broadband during a recent webinar organized by the National Organization of State Offices for Rural Health. The event, titled “Collaboration Carpool: Conversations with Mission-Minded Rural Stakeholders,” included multi-sector experts who discussed collaboration efforts to improve health for the nearly 61 million people living in rural America.
“I think broadband can be a really critical tool as we think about ways to augment, supplement, support existing health care,” Bloomfield said, adding approximately 60 percent of the 7,200 federally designated health care provider shortage areas are in rural communities.
And thanks to ongoing initiatives, including the federal infrastructure bill that allocates $65 billion for the expansion of broadband, now is the ideal time to call attention to the connection between rural health care and broadband, she said.
During the pandemic, telemedicine quickly became a critical piece of health care, with mental and behavioral health care the fastest-growing sector.
“The ability to offer health care and mental health support and substance abuse support to people where they live and where they are comfortable is going to be extremely important,” she said.
Along those lines, Bloomfield highlighted a grant program initiated by the Foundation for Rural Service — the Virtual Living Room. The program blends rural technology, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs resources and local support to encourage veteran use of advanced medical technologies. Virtual Living Room saves veterans travel time and costs while enabling connections to skilled physicians and other providers in the VA medical system such as telehealth and other online resources.
“The grant is used to create a safe space in a local library, community hall, a local Rotary Club, we have them set up everywhere,” she said. “These aren’t complicated, but they allow the ability to create that safe space, that access to care, that instantaneous service that rural Americans are looking for.”
For more information on the program, visit: frs.org/virtuallivingroom.
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