Special to WRAL Tech Wire

(Editor’s note: Now in its fourth year, the 12 Days of Broadband runs Dec. 4 through Dec. 19 highlighting a dozen innovations and stories directly impacted by the expanding reach of high-speed connectivity this year in North Carolina and throughout the country.)

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Today’s health care environment increasingly depends on electronic connections that assure high-quality care is provided efficiently, effectively, and at an acceptable cost.

Significant increases in the use of electronic health records (EHRs) among the nation’s physicians and hospitals were detailed in two new studies published in August by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

The studies found that in 2013, almost 78 percent office-based physicians adopted some type of EHR system. About half of all physicians (48 percent) had an EHR system with advanced functionalities in 2013, a doubling of the adoption rate in 2009. And, about 6 in 10 hospitals had adopted an EHR system with certain advanced functionalities in 2013, quadruple that percentage from 2010.

“Patients are seeing the benefits of health IT as a result of the significant strides that have been made in the adoption and meaningful use of electronic health records,” said Karen DeSalvo, national coordinator for health information technology. “We look forward to working with our partners to ensure that people’s digital health information follows them across the care continuum so it will be there when it matters most.”

The information in the studies was collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics and the American Hospital Association.

The studies also showed that more work is needed to support widespread health information exchange and providers’ ability to achieve new requirements this year under the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs.

Those details note that only 14 percent share data electronically with ambulatory care providers or hospitals outside their organization. Furthermore, the vast majority of hospitals had capabilities that could be used to support new requirements but were not being used, and only 10 percent of hospitals were providing patients with online access to view, download, and transmit information about their hospital admission.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services continues to support efforts towards an interoperable health system to enable a nationwide health information exchange with on-ground support, tools, resources and how-to-guides. The FCC also provided support in this area this year as well with the Healthcare Connect Fund and Connect2Health plan.

In March, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced the new task force called Connect2Health that aimed to bring together experts on the critical intersection of broadband, advanced technology, and health. Wheeler explained earlier this year that the commission’s top priority must be to make networks work for everyone as broadband itself is not the goal – it’s what broadband enables.

How this impacts North Carolina still remains to be seen.

Accessing remote experts on a moment’s notice, sharing information among a patient’s physicians quickly and easily, keeping parents up to date on the details of their child’s doctor visits, and providing continuing education to health care providers all depend on highly-reliable, cost-effective, and very fast broadband connections. Meeting this challenge at an affordable cost for North Carolina’s public health agencies, hospitals, and other public and non-profit health care providers is the primary mission of the North Carolina TeleHealth Network (NCTN).

The NCTN is a dedicated network for public and non-profit health care providers in the state leveraging both the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN) and the N.C. Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) infrastructure to provide high-capacity, reliable, cost-efficient, and high-speed connectivity and other network services. MCNC offered NCREN as a broadband-based foundation to be utilized in the transformation of health care delivery in North Carolina. The vision of state health care professionals is for North Carolina to become a leader in the adoption of sharing EHRs, telemedicine-enabled health services, and seamless health information exchanges. The NCTN also works with private service providers including AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and CenturyLink to supply last-mile transport services.

The NCTN began in 2007 and is coordinated through the Cabarrus Health Alliance (CHA) and subsidized through the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot Program (RHCPP). According to NCTN Program Manager Dave Kirby, the NCTN provides the critical broadband infrastructure non-profit health care providers need to properly conduct their business today.

“The new Connect2Health task force’s work is expected to harmonize with NCTN’s mission to support effective and efficient use of broadband among non-profit health care providers in North Carolina,” Kirby said. “We have created a robust network to support the health care needs of North Carolina citizens for years to come.”

Broadband continues to revolutionize health care in North Carolina and throughout the country, which is why over the last four years for each of the 12 Days of Broadband, the topic always is included among the stories.