BEND, OR -- Oregon Senator Ron Wyden talked with local healthcare experts Friday, about how limited internet access hurts rural patients. St. Charles Health System President/CEO Joe Sluka says local doctors rely on broadband connections to help treat patients in outlying areas, "I think most people think that - when they’re thinking of their broadband network, they’re thinking about their cable TV or how they’re streaming YouTube. And it really does have a fundamental impact on healthcare."
Sluka tells KBND News, "We’re going to look at expanding tele-medicine capabilities to some of the more rural areas - like the Burns, and Lakeviews and John Days – so that we can make sure people are treated where they want to be treated, and that’s really in their hometown. So, we have to have the bandwidth to be able to do that and to be able to transport images, or anything from a medical perspective, from those communities to St. Charles so we can take care of those folks." St. Charles' tele-medicine program also allows patients to see specialists at OHSU without traveling to Portland. The partnership with OHSU started in 2013 with pediatric patients, "We’ve had 36 consults with OHSU," says Sluka, "And those are people who certainly would have gone to OHSU and now we’re able to treat them here. So, that actually saves not only the consumer money, but also the healthcare system."
But, Senator Wyden (D-OR) says that expansion will require the FCC to raise the $400M cap on the Rural Health Care Program, which provides funding for telecommunication and broadband services. "What it will mean is we’d have a chance to provide the interconnections that are so important when you’re talking about life or death matters." Wyden says decisions made 20 years ago are hindering progress, "I think that in a lot of communities, there wasn’t this sense of the potential that there is in rural Oregon."
Representatives from the La Pine Community Health Center and Mosaic Medical also met with Senator Wyden Friday, telling the Oregon Democrat they use tele-medicine to treat patients in rural areas, but aren't able to expand their programs or infrastructure because of the current cap on the Rural Health Care Program.
PHOTOS: Top- Wyden meets with representatives from several local health centers, Friday, at St. Charles Bend.
Right- Dr. Miles Ellenby, from OHSU, attended Friday's meeting in Bend via a Tele-Medicine unit.