USDA To Fund 45 Rural Telemedicine Projects

Agriculture Department grants program will also support network connectivity and distance learning technologies.

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The United States Department of Agriculture has announced that it will fund 45 telemedicine projects to increase access to healthcare in rural areas.

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement Monday, saying more than $34.7 million in grants will be issued through USDA's distance learning and telemedicine program to fund 106 projects: 45 in telemedicine and 61 focused on distance learning services.

Part of the telemedicine grant money will be used to improve network connectivity to help rural medical specialists use videoconferencing to provide advanced diagnosis for patients or consult with colleagues at other hospitals in remote locations.

"These investments we are making in telemedicine are on top of the big step forward in rural healthcare," Vilsack said during a media briefing with reporters. He also said the funds will go toward building healthy, strong rural communities and will "encourage more doctors and nurses to offer services in small towns, which is a result of the Affordable Care Act."

Under the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program, a host of states and healthcare delivery organizations will receive funds to boost their healthcare services.

-- In Oklahoma, INTEGRIS Health will receive $496,516 to replace outdated systems with modern video teleconferencing equipment throughout its network of 20 rural schools, hospitals, and health centers. Links to 11 resource hospitals and physician offices will provide services such as speech therapy and instruction to students, telestroke services that connect patients with physicians, continuing medical education for healthcare professionals, and a stroke recognition program to train students to recognize the warning signs of stroke.

-- In Ohio, the Holzer Clinic will receive a $400,083 grant that will be used primarily for medical and healthcare training between the hospital hub and 19 outlying hospitals and clinics in five rural southeastern Ohio counties.

-- In North Carolina, the Graham Children's Health Service of Toe River will receive a grant worth $264,000 to support a school-based telehealth program for children in two counties in western N.C. The My Health-e-Schools project will build upon the network of school-based health providers, nurses, teachers, and administrators to provide primary healthcare, mental healthcare, and nutritional counseling. It will be led by a professional medical staff and enhanced by new digital exam equipment, which will be linked together with videoconferencing technology. The project will help address students' health problems onsite at 11 public schools in those two counties.

Vilsack said the announcement builds on the Obama administration's goal of expanding broadband connectivity to help rural areas deliver telehealth services. Last September, for example, the Commerce Department announced funding for telehealth networks in California and Georgia to expand their broadband infrastructure, which will enable these states to bridge the technological divide in healthcare delivery.

"When all is said and done, we expect that our investments will bring broadband access to an estimated 1.2 million households, roughly 7 million Americans benefitting, 230,000 businesses, and nearly 8,000 anchor institutions like hospitals and libraries," Vilsack said.