The Connect2Health Task Force has released an update to its research on the availability of broadband health services, identifying counties in which there is a critical need for increased availability.

The group, supporting the health technology efforts of the Federal Communication Commission, released new priority lists of “critical need” counties in broadband and health, which are among those most in need of broadband health solutions or are “digitally isolated.”

The findings were included in the group’s update of its “Mapping Broadband Health in America” platform, which the federal agency released on Thursday. The latest set of information reflects the latest complete annual fixed broadband data from the FCC and updated health data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings.

“As telehealth, telemedicine and other cutting-edge mHealth initiatives gain momentum across the country, this web-based mapping platform enables more efficient, data-driven decision making at the intersection of broadband and health,” says Michele Ellison, chair of the Connect2Health FCC Task Force.

Also See: Groups ask FCC to bolster broadband-enabled healthcare

The fixed broadband data in the mapping update was released in December 2016, covering data submissions as of December 2015. The health data is drawn from the 2017 release of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings & Roadmap. This map data update provided the Task Force with an opportunity to look at broadband and health data between years.

The group’s estimation of areas most needing broadband health support are dubbed “The Priority 2017” and “Rural Priority 2017.” It aims to highlight areas of the country that are seeing increases in chronic diseases and shortages of medical services.

“We recognize that the upturn in closures of rural hospitals and medical facilities, highlighted in recent research at the University of North Carolina, is of great concern to many,” Ellison says. “The mapping platform shines a critical spotlight on the need for broadband health solutions in rural and digitally isolated counties where physician shortages are more than double the national average. It also demonstrates the importance of initiatives to promote broadband infrastructure deployment.”

Among the findings in the 2017 report:

  • The number of people living in “double burden” counties—those with high levels of chronic illness and lacking broadband access—has increased to more than 36 million, according to 2015 data. Almost half of U.S. counties have high burdens of chronic disease as well as a need for greater broadband connectivity.
  • More than 60 percent of rural Americans live in “double burden” counties, while less than 5 percent of urban America falls into the same category.
  • Some 214 counties—175 of which are primarily rural—have broadband access below 50 percent and diabetes and obesity rates above the national average.
  • Preventable hospitalizations are 150 percent higher in the least connected counties compared with other counties.

The Task Force also introduced a new analytical product, the Positive Trend Counties inventory, which compares broadband and health data year by year, thus identifying priority counties that have made progress on broadband or health measures, no longer meeting the thresholds as “critical need” counties.

The report highlights the challenges the nation faces in better using broadband services to care for needy populations, says Mignon Clyburn, commissioner of the FCC.

“I am pleased that the Commission is demonstrating its continued commitment to the Connect2Health Task Force and the Mapping Broadband Health in America platform with the release of today’s update,” she says. “For far too many rural and underserved consumers, the broadband health picture remains bleak.

“The work of the Task Force is far from done. Armed with the robust input from stakeholders across the country along with the data and information that is pouring into the Commission in response to the recent Connect2Health Public Notice, the Task Force staff are working to make recommendations to the Commission about how best to architect broadband health policy to meet the needs of rural and underserved Americans.”

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