Health
7:37 am
Mon January 30, 2012

High Speed Health: What Google Fiber Could Mean For Health Care

What if when you’re sick and need to see the doctor, you could just log on to your home computer for a virtual visit instead of going to the office?  That idea and others were kicked around among area health leaders last week at a meeting about what Google’s soon-to-be-installed high speed internet, Google Fiber, could mean for the region’s health care sector.

“We’ve done some thinking about how much patient care could be done from hospital to home,” said Barbara Atkinson, Dean of KU’s School of Medicine and a facilitator of the meeting. “Things like managing some chronic diseases – heart failure and some things like that – if you have real high-definition teleconferencing and really good simple machines that could be in people’s homes, you could manage many things.  You really could cut health care costs by doing it that way, rather than having readmissions for [things like] heart failure.”

KU Medical Center already has high-speed internet on campus that’s supported programs like telemedicine.  But the center recently developed three pilot-projects focused on using Google’s new fiber network in the community.  One will concentrate on the virtual care of teens in their homes, another on support to caregivers of people with dementia, and the other on consulting and training at risk families through Project Eagle.  Children's Mercy is also developing some initiatives.

Dr. Sharon Lee, head of Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care, says Google Fiber holds promise for improving the level of care at her primary care clinic.

“What I’m looking forward to is having access to a quick way to communicate with other providers,” she said.

She says that could mean using high-speed internet to upload and send x-rays from her clinic to specialists for real-time evaluations. 

But whether it’s virtual consultations between doctors and patients or between specialists and primary care doctors, several people acknowledged a potential challenge: given the current federal and private health care payment structure, how would such services be reimbursed?

Dr. Lee also says if Google’s main focus is hooking up high speed cable to people’s homes, then its health benefits outside the doctor’s office will heavily depend on whether people have computers and can afford the internet service.  For many of her patients, she says, that will be a challenge.

Clyde Bolton, Deputy Director of Kansas City’s health department, wasn’t exactly sure what Google Fiber will mean once it’s connected to homes, but like many others at the meeting, hopes it could help empower people over their health and spur healthier decisions – ones that he hopes might curb the region’s major obesity problem.  Bolton says this could happen through better access to health information and improved communication with health professionals.

“When I was growing up, you didn’t ask the doctor what you felt or how you felt or what was wrong, you just told them a few things that made you feel bad,” Bolton said. “Today, we really need to be interactive with the medical community and help ourselves.  I think Google really allows us to do that because it’s creating that ability to get the information out fast.”  

Last week’s health meeting was part of a bi-state mayoral initiative aimed at examining how Google fiber could benefit the region, whether that be in terms of health, education, or arts and culture. The project’s co-chair, Mike Burke, said the effort has also come to realize that a lot of opportunities may have more to do with making internet more widely available, such as through increasing the number of WiFi spots in the city, than with having this new ultra-high speed internet option.

“We’re not just looking at high-speed fiber,” Burke said. “But also higher connectivity.” 

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