Broadband Access: Health Centers Offer Local Solutions to National Challenges

This post is part of NACHC’s Innovation Blog Series. This series is hosted monthly by our Center for Community Health Innovation. Jed Barton is NACHC’s Partnership Development and Management Specialist.

The pandemic brought into focus how the issue of broadband availability affects access to healthcare. Community Health Centers’ use of audio and video telehealth increased dramatically due to new federal and state policy flexibilities. Thus, the announcement by the Biden-Harris Administration of the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is good news for health center patients. In the 21st century, the availability of high-speed internet is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Especially for health centers, which always strive for equity in the care they deliver.

Different places face different challenges under the umbrella of “digital divide” as illustrated in an article by Direct Relief from May 2020. The new federal broadband program aims to address several challenges by targeting access and affordability. Yet it’s important to remember that the digital divide is not just about access for health center patients. As more folks get connected, there are challenges with health literacy and patients understanding how to use specific technology. Innovative technology solutions for the future must be human centered in their design.

Caring for Hard-to-Reach Patients

Health Centers are known for offering local solutions to national challenges (see examples of how health centers transformed care during the COVID-19 pandemic.). The Conference for Agricultural Worker Health held May 2-4, 2022, provided an opportunity for a closer look at how health centers develop local strategies for reaching patients in creative and innovative ways and by finding partnerships to sustain and increase their impact.

One Health Center at the conference said of their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic that initially they were providing more care in the parking lot of their clinic than via telehealth. Some patients need extra support to make the most of telehealth services. To meet this need, Yakima Neighborhood Health Services has dedicated a team of community health workers to provide one-on-one digital navigation and digital literacy support. They said one of the key components to the success of the service is individualized attention.

After the Conference, some of the NACHC staff visited Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). Dr. Grace Wang, Senior Fellow, Public Health Integration and Innovation, and one of the NACHC attendees, said of the experience, “Amazing and inspiring!! CCH integrates social drivers of health and advocacy in all aspects of programs and services. [For example] CCH staff and clients worked with state legislators on a new state law that prohibits housing discrimination against veterans in Colorado.”

An innovative tactic developed by the Coalition is the use of “telehealth backpacks” to care for people who are experiencing homelessness in encampments, street corners, and permanent supportive housing. Read more about this innovative program and others in a telehealth case studies report by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Partnerships are Key: Reaching Migrant Workers at Head Start

True for many community-based organizations and core to the Health Center Movement, partnerships are key to providing high-quality and wraparound services. Finger Lakes Community Health is launching a telehealth option in partnership with the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program. For many people who are migrant workers, there is no paid time off or sick leave. Time away from work means no pay. Therefore, the Finger Lakes team got to work coordinating and aligning workflows to offer acute care telehealth visits from the Head Start location, so parents can get to their children and to the care they need with less disruption to their lives.

Health Centers Continue the Legacy of Local Innovation

High-speed internet connects people to telehealth and so much more! The social drivers of health like educational opportunities, employment, and housing services depend on reliable internet service. Not to mention the intangibles of finding community, belonging, and relaxation (I am currently watching Call the Midwife and Veep for my moments of unwinding).

Community Health Centers adapt to their local context while belonging to a national network. They solve problems, partner, and center the agency and strengths of their patients. They make a real impact on people each day.

Share with us how your Health Center/Primary Care Association/Health Center Controlled Network is addressing national issues locally, and you may be featured in our next Innovation Blog. Post a comment below or email us at innovation@nachc.org

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