FCC launches mapping tool to explore link between health, broadband access

By Heather Mack
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Zip code is often the best indicator of health outcomes, so in the age of digital health, it’s no surprise that those isolated from physical healthcare hubs are often also isolated from the technology that could fill those gaps. That's why the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect2Health Task Force has launched a new mapping to tool that will try to identify where broadband could be maximized to improve access to health care.

The Mapping Broadband Health in America inititiative makes it possible to study the connection between health outcomes (like rates of diabetes, obesity and preventable hospitalizations) and Internet adoption and broadband availability. Using health data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings, the map is an interactive experience for policymakers, tech companies and healthcare providers that enables users to zero in on regions that lack broadband or have poor health (in most cases, both).

Map users can visualize, overlay and analyze broadband and health data at the national, state and county levels, and the tool can be used by both public and private sectors and local communities to identify not only gaps, but also opportunities such as telemedicine. Additionally, the map could help answer whether people living in certain areas could even use basic connected health tools, like accessing healthcare systems online or checking in with mobile health apps. 

Often, places that lack broadband access also have more health problems. For example, a sample map on the FCC’s website revealed five states – Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma – have incidences of chronic disease like obesity and diabetes above the national average. At the same time, fixed broadband access percentages are on average below 50 percent. The mapping tool can identify double burden clusters like these and potentially bring about public-private partnerships, private sector collaborations and renewed policy efforts. 

“We are excited to make this state-of-the-art tool available to the public,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. “The unique insights revealed by this mapping platform can be utilized by businesses and policymakers to effect change and innovation.”

The map is the newest addition to the Connect2Health Task Force’s toolkit to ascertain how broadband and other next-generation technologies can be leveraged to improve access to healthcare. According the most recent Broadband Progress report, some 34 million Americans still lack access to broadband. For the past two years, the Task Force has been traveling to several states to learn how communities are using new technologies.

The Connect2Health Task Force has found that connected communities versus digitally isolated communities have, unsurprisingly, vastly different pictures of health. For example, in communities where 60 percent of households lack access to broadband and over 60 percent lack basic Internet connections at home, obesity prevalence is 25 percent higher and diabetes prevalence is 35 percent in higher. The Task Force also found similar outcomes for those living in rural versus urban communities.
 
“This is a groundbreaking effort at the nexus of broadband and health,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a statement. “The map makes clear that there are some communities that bear a double burden ... they have the lowest connectivity and highest need. Today, we identify challenges and point to sustainable and innovative solutions."