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Charles D. Peterson, Published June 15 2013

Letter: Expand broadband in rural ND

As North Dakota begins implementing President Barack Obama’s new health care law and 20,000 more residents in our state get access to coverage, policymakers should begin shifting attention to a related matter: expanding access to remote pharmacies so people can get the medication they need in a timely and inexpensive manner.

In rural states like North Dakota, telepharmacy is restoring valuable health care services in remote and medically underserved areas of the state. But for residents to be able to benefit from these technological advances, we need to ensure that the right policies are in place to continue to promote the buildout of broadband access across North Dakota.

Nearby sites

Telepharmacy relies on modern telecommunication and Internet technologies to connect licensed pharmacists to registered locations that can fill prescriptions remotely. Whereas previous generations of patients had no choice but to drive to a physical pharmacy with a pharmacist on site to fill a prescription – which could take hours in many rural parts of our state – now they can pick up essential medications at nearby telepharmacy sites.

Beyond saving the patient time, telepharmacies provide top-quality medical care. The pharmacist can still communicate face-to-face in real time with the patient through audio and video computer links, thereby avoiding any confusion over when the medicine should be taken or what other drugs can be used in conjunction with the prescription. The patient still receives personal care from their pharmacist but without the need to leave their community. For many older generations, particularly those in rural areas of North Dakota and across the country, this innovation is saving both time and money for the patient and the pharmacy while delivering the same care.

Economic benefits

The difference this system makes for the residents of North Dakota is astounding. Since the inception of the North Dakota Telepharmacy Project in 2002, approximately 80,000 rural residents have had their pharmacy services restored, retained or established.

The benefits extend to our economy, as well. Telepharmacies have added approximately $26.5 million in economic development to local rural economies including more than 80 new jobs. While North Dakota weathered the recession better than most, these jobs and economic activity are still important to the future vitality of our rural communities.

But all of the benefits of telepharmacy are wholly dependent on ubiquitous high-speed broadband access, which unfortunately continues to lag in many parts of our state.

No access

North Dakota ranks 32nd out of 56 states and territories in terms of access to broadband Internet. In the counties of Rolette, Dunn, McHenry, Golden Valley, Slope and Sheridan, more than 20 percent of the population is still without access to broadband speeds of even 3 megabits per second (Mbps). With a national average speed of 29.6 Mbps, these numbers are woefully inadequate.

To end the digital divide, we need government to continue its light touch regulatory approach to the Internet. This will encourage the private sector investment needed to bring broadband to all corners of North Dakota.

Since 1996, thanks to limited regulation of the Internet, the private sector has invested more than

$1 trillion in wired and wireless broadband infrastructure. These investments have made the U.S. a worldwide leader in high-speed Internet adoption, with more than 97 percent of American homes having access to broadband today.

The Obama administration is now setting new second-term priorities and appointing new leadership to the Federal Communications Commission. It is imperative that they remember there are still important decisions to be made that will affect health care across this country.

For North Dakota, the importance of high-speed Internet access to critical health services must not be overlooked.

Peterson, PharmD, is dean and professor in the College of Pharmacy, Nursing, and Allied Sciences at North Dakota State University in Fargo and director of the North Dakota Telepharmacy Project.