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The Impact of Google Fiber to Health in Kansas City

By Mike Sherry, KHI/HCF News Service, February 8, 2012

Because the disease can damage tiny blood vessels in the eye, people with diabetes are supposed to have an annual retinal scan.

But that yearly check can be difficult for the uninsured patients Dr. Sharon Lee treats at her safety-net clinic in Kansas City, Kan.

As executive director of the Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care Services of Greater Kansas City, Lee said she hoped that Google could change that with the ultra-fast Internet network it’s deploying locally.

Google announced Monday that it had started installing the cables and service is expected to be available in some locations later this year.

Google Fiber promises download speeds up to 100 times faster than most home Internet users have today at a competitive price.

Fiber allows the swapping of large files, such as high-resolution photos of the retina, which Lee said would be a “really important extender” for the care of diabetics.

On-site specialists cannot serve the crush of patients that need the exams. But, Lee said, “If we are sending them photos that have been taken of the back of the eye, they can review those photos and therefore we will be able to see a lot more folks and do the screenings for a lot more diabetics who don’t have access to specialists.”

Lee’s said there are many other possibilities for improving health care through Google’s network. The region could become a Mecca of medical innovation. The infrastructure also could allow better management of chronic diseases and provide more support for veterans. It could be used to spread messages about healthy living and perhaps even invigorate neighborhoods by reducing crime.

Google has not released many details about its plan. It’s unknown, for instance, if safety-net clinics such as Family Health Care will tie into the network, though Google is including an allotment of hook-ups that would allow for community access through places such as schools and libraries.

The lack of specifics has not tempered the enthusiasm among providers.

“I’m still very excited about it,” said Wyandotte County Public Health Director Joe Connor. “I’d just love to see the possibilities come to a little more of a head.”

It was about a year ago that Google announced that Wyandotte County had beaten out more than 1,000 communities to become a testing ground for the company’s high-speed fiber initiative, which will also extend into Kansas City, Mo.

Boosters hope the high-speed infrastructure can do things like spur entrepreneurship and revolutionize education, but improving community health has been a goal from the outset.

At the University of Kansas Medical Center, officials have identified six areas they would like to target for improvement through Google Fiber, according to Steve Fennel, director of telecommunications outreach. The areas are:
• Diabetes treatment and prevention
• Elder care
• Pediatric obesity and nutrition
• Teen health
• At-risk families
• K-12 health education

And the idea of a Global Health Center emerged from a region-wide brainstorming session held in the fall at the Central Library in downtown Kansas City, Mo.

Among the recommendations was one to “exploit Google Fiber capabilities and the medical expertise of the areas to create a telemedicine hub with a global reach.”

It was at a Google Fiber health care forum late last month that one attendee mentioned using the high-speed network to better serve veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Fennel.

And Connor said he hoped Google’s efforts could expand the number of households with Internet access, so the Wyandotte County Public Health Department can stress the importance of diet and exercise to more residents.

For Jerry Jones, the potential of Google Fiber to pipe medical data and a virtual physician into a patient’s living room raises tantalizing prospects for his efforts to reduce chronic illnesses in low-income neighborhoods. He is a community organizer for Communities Creating Opportunities, a Kansas City, Mo.,-based nonprofit.

Jones also wondered if Google Fiber could enable direct access to the police department through the punch of a computer key. That could perhaps improve police response times, he said.

But, like many others with dreams of a Google-led community transformation, Jones said, “I don’t really know how fiber plays a role in that just yet.”

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