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Survey Explores Link Between Telehealth and Economic Success

A new survey of economic development professionals suggests that more telehealth access and local control of broadband-related factors can give cities and counties an economic leg up.

doctor at a laptop with a cellphone.
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In the wake of COVID-19, telehealth has become a bigger economic development concern among local areas, as suggested by the results of a 2021 survey conducted by broadband industry analyst Craig Settles. 

About 40 percent of survey respondents indicated that telehealth can have a “measurable impact” on their local economy in terms of attracting medical professionals and reducing unnecessary ER visits. Two years ago, when Settles conducted a similar survey, only about 25 percent of respondents felt the same about telehealth’s potential impact on the medical workforce and ER visits. Further, a higher percentage of respondents in 2021 believe telehealth can help retain local mental health services and keep senior citizens living at home longer. 

Settles said these numbers suggest there’s money to be made and saved with greater telehealth capabilities. Specifically, he sees a lot of potential value in local telehealth radiology programs, citing the $1.8 million saved over 10 years by a radiology practice in Chattanooga, Tenn.  

“There are serious dollars and cents to be had if you can do this locally, because people don’t have to go all the way to China to get their X-rays, all the various MRIs and so forth,” Settles said. “The forward-thinking communities, especially if they’re a rural area, I would look at starting a radiology practice because there’s money to be made there locally. Obviously, you can’t do this without broadband, but if you’re one of these cities building the network, that should be a main consideration for revenue.”

Respondents also provided their perspectives on how COVID-19 has impacted various determinants of economic development. Almost 60 percent indicated that the pandemic has made health-care access worse, another finding that underscores the potential economic value of expanded telehealth, which can facilitate exchanges of data and imagery from a distance.

“When you’re talking about rehab, when you're talking about looking at stuff in the ICU … all of those activities are data-intensive, and they’re all related to dollars,” Settles said. 

But telehealth is hard to implement without wider access to broadband. Roughly half of respondents said that COVID-19 has negatively affected people's ability to access high-speed Internet. 

The 2021 survey also asked several questions about broadband policy. Close to 70 percent of respondents felt that local areas should have the right to make their own broadband decisions, including the option of building and owning a public broadband network, while roughly 5 percent felt there should be more restrictions on community networks. Moreover, about 70 percent of respondents indicated that local control of right-of-way rules is “worth fighting for.” 

“The economic development folks are basically saying, ‘We need to have the control here, and it has an economic benefit when it is here,’” Settles said. 

The survey, which was sent out last month, collects the viewpoints of roughly 190 economic development professionals in both the public and private sectors. The vast majority of respondents serve either counties, cities or regions within a state. Although the sample isn’t nationally representative, the survey includes respondents from almost every state, with Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Louisiana and Florida having the greatest number of respondents within their borders. 

Respondents tended to serve rural jurisdictions, though the survey included professionals who work in urban and suburban settings as well. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.
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