Fifth-generation (5G) wireless technologies will bring scale and speed to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) healthcare operations, but one VA official today said the focus must shift to closing the digital divide for veterans in rural communities – in parallel to the advanced 5G work.
Dr. Thomas Osborne, director of the National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation at the VA, said at an ATARC event today that 5G is only as fast as the slowest point in the VA’s workflow. For those veterans in rural areas without basic services, Dr. Osborne said 5G is not going to improve their healthcare experience with the agency.
“What we really need to address – and I sort of urge a lot of the telco companies out there – is just basic services for a lot of people living in rural communities is going to be tremendous,” Dr. Osborne said. “There continues to be a digital divide for those living in rural communities and other areas.”
The VA has seen a dramatic increase in telehealth use as a result of the pandemic. In March of 2020, the VA averaged about 2,500 telehealth visits a day, but by February 2021, it was averaging 45,000 visits a day.
Dr. Osborne explained that about 60 percent of the veteran population lives in rural communities, and basic connectivity is crucial to delivering telehealth care.
Additionally, VA officials have previously said “the number one issue” to delivering telehealth services is a lack of sufficient and/or affordable broadband service in areas where some veterans live.
“If they can’t have basic connectivity for telehealth, for example, then we are going to be a long way from democratizing care,” Dr. Osborne said.
“5G is going to be a whole other spectrum of possibilities. You also need it end-to-end, you can’t just have 5G on one side of the equation, because it’s only going to go as fast as the slowest point in that workflow,” he added. “So, I think what we really need to do is get basic services for everybody in parallel to doing this advanced work for pushing the boundaries and showing the art of the possible.”