Life in rural Kentucky is already pretty great. We’ve got much less traffic, much more clean air, a heap more natural beauty, tons of birds and fish and a little less stress than our big-city neighbors. But we can also struggle with access to health care.

A new proposal from the Federal Communications Commission could help address that shortcoming. The idea is to give more people access to “telehealth” services — essentially video chats with doctors that serve as an appointment without the drive or the waiting room. The FCC could accomplish this by paying for a large chunk of the costs needed to make those telehealth services available.

“If adopted, this pilot program could provide health care providers with funding needed to purchase the communications services that will support their connected care efforts,” FCC Chair Ajit Pai said.

The “Connected Care Pilot” proposal would use $100 million to pay for up to 85% of the cost of “connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services,” according to the FCC.

Connected Care Pilot is still in its infancy — the FCC just this month is asking for input on how it should design the specifics, including what types of healthcare companies and internet service providers should be allowed to participate; and which groups of people should be targeted with the internet subsidies.

We think there’s a great case to be made for focusing this project on rural areas. Rural areas in Kentucky and other nearby states face health problems many other areas do not. We are taking the hardest hit from the opioid epidemic and our population also deals with diabetes and heart disease — all of which the FCC has already identified as possible qualifiers for receiving Connected Care support.

On top of that, greater distances between people and their doctors in rural areas creates a barrier to health care that can be harmful for both patient and medical provider.

“If you live in a rural area, seeing a specialist can mean missing work, driving several hours — each way — and finding a local hotel if returning home the same day isn’t feasible,” Pai said. “Even worse, some patients may choose to forego necessary medical treatments just to avoid these additional costs.”

Rural hospitals and health care providers face increasingly difficult budgetary battles every year just to keep their doors open. As many as one in five rural hospitals in the U.S. is at risk of closure unless it gets financial assistance, according to an analysis by the global consulting firm Navigant. In Kentucky, that number is almost one in four.

If rural doctors could offer their patients telehealth services, it could go a long way to keeping them around, ensuring quality health care for rural residents for years to come.

— The Advocate-

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