Photo: Gov. Bill Ritter

With an award from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Colorado will soon have one of the largest healthcare information networks in America. A consortium led by the Colorado Hospital Association (CHA) will develop the Colorado Telehealth Network and move Colorado one step closer to achieving one of Gov. Bill Ritter's administrative promises, which was to significantly expand broadband communication to rural areas of the state.

"For too long, rural communities have struggled to secure and retain providers and receive the kind of healthcare they deserve," Ritter said. "This is such an important step towards helping rural patients secure quality healthcare when and where they need it."

The FCC award provides up to $4.6 million in federal funds over three years. When combined with a similar FCC award to the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, $9.8 million will be made available for the initiative. In addition, a 15 percent match from participating healthcare providers will supplement the initiative.

"This major milestone will bring Colorado one step closer to putting advanced Internet technology to use in healthcare," said Steven Summer, president and CEO of CHA. "It will significantly enhance access to quality healthcare in rural Colorado."

Telehealth and telemedicine services provide patients in rural areas with access to critically needed medical specialists, in some instances without leaving their homes or communities. Intensive care doctors and nurses can monitor critically ill patients around the clock and video conferencing allows specialists and mental health professionals to care for patients in different rural locations, often hundreds of miles away. The network will enhance the delivery of health services, help control costs and make care more affordable, reduce travel time for consumers, reduce the potential for medical errors and enable healthcare providers to share critical information.

The goals of the Colorado Telehealth Network initiative are threefold. One is to share the benefits of telemedicine access to primary and specialty care patients who normally would have to travel large distances to receive care. Second is to ensure that healthcare facilities are able to use available technologies and expand their efforts in the area of health information technology. Third is the coordination of care in a public health emergency by allowing healthcare providers to share critical information.

The FCC will cover 85 percent of the cost of building the network, including design and engineering, network hardware, and installation of the network for public and not-for-profit hospitals and clinics. Healthcare facilities participating in the program include hospitals, clinics, university and research centers, behavioral health sites and community health centers. To date, 72 Colorado hospitals, 118 health clinics and 184 mental health centers have signed on to participate in the statewide fiber optic broadband network.

The Colorado Health Foundation is providing crucial support for the initiative, including funding of administrative support not covered by the FCC award. "This initiative is a natural extension of the Foundation's Health Information Technology work underway that will help us meet one of our key goals -- to ensure that all Coloradans have access to quality, coordinated health care," said Anne Warhover, president and CEO of The Colorado Health Foundation

The project is an integral part of the governor's goal of expanding broadband communication in Colorado. Broadband communication is crucial for economic development, and extending this technology will dramatically improve healthcare and educations services, and strengthen local businesses in rural Colorado.