By Matt de Simone
Botetourt County households now have an opportunity to experience the power of fiber-optic Internet. The 2020 pandemic limited many local citizens from attending events and vacations. While many struggled to transition into a new way of life, Botetourt County administrators worked diligently to provide the community with a chance of obtaining a resource that many households and businesses in the surrounding areas have yet to encounter.
Over the next few weeks, The Fincastle Herald gives subscribers a closer look at the process of building a “backbone” of fiber-optic lines across Botetourt County.
The impact of the expansion for telehealth services
Before the 2020 pandemic, some people never heard of the term “telehealth”—delivering health care, information, or education using remote technologies. The term “telemedicine” falls in the telehealth category, explicitly focusing on patients’ remote diagnosis and treatment through telecommunications.
Both terms are used more frequently as alternative routing due to the COVID-19 pandemic becomes the “new norm” for many individuals. Telehealth is a pivot many healthcare providers utilized while they were unable to care for their patients in person.
Telehealth was a critical factor in Botetourt County’s broadband expansion in 2020. In areas that formerly couldn’t carry a signal, they can now “reach out” to remote physicians instantly. That type of connection benefits individuals who cannot leave their homes due to illness or don’t have to leave their homes because the proper care treats those individuals electronically.
Brandon Evans of Friendship Health and Rehabilitation in Roanoke is a member of the Botetourt Broadband Commission. He is currently the executive director at Friendship Health and Rehab. Evans is a Troutville resident and has worked in the healthcare system for the last 18 years.
“Being a Botetourt native, working in healthcare, and having two boys—one with special needs—I’ve been able to look at the expansion from that avenue,” Evans said.\
Evans and Botetourt County Fire Chief Jason Ferguson are hoping that this new means of communication will provide better care for Botetourt County citizens. While Ferguson’s scope reaches out to all citizens in the area, Evans’ focuses on the senior citizen and special needs population.
The commission focused on Buchanan and northern Botetourt County when planning the expansion. Areas that once had zero services now have better service than sites for some Roanoke businesses.
“I’m a big proponent in providing things locally,” Evans said of his time working with the Broadband Commission. “It’s been huge in my life being able to work in the healthcare system and still be near family. And to do so at affordable costs and give back to those who have helped me along the way. It’s been great.”
At the end of the current expansion, the funds provided to Botetourt County will cover 85% of homes with broadband access. Areas that need direct attention will gain access first. As the committee continues to work with partners, they will keep putting forth efforts to ensure that broadband access will be available in many areas that need a broadband connection.
“For me working in the healthcare system, having a good connection is critical,” Evans added. “From a Wi-Fi or broadband standpoint, I didn’t realize that putting in the fiber will take away connectivity issues, which is really important.”
Botetourt Fire Chief Jason Ferguson is excited about the expansion and the resources it will provide his staff. While the development continues, the utilization of telehealth and telemedicine evolves every day. Ferguson said that, currently, Botetourt Fire & EMS hadn’t experienced a situation that involves the telehealth piece, but that element of the expansion is right around the corner.
The local Fire & EMS crews are currently working with their medical director and healthcare systems to find ways to engage with telehealth for people that don’t need to be moved to the emergency department or transported elsewhere. Emergency Triage Treatment and Transport (ET3) is a model Ferguson and the Botetourt Fire & EMS are currently utilizing. ET3 provides flexibility to ambulance care teams addressing the emergency needs of their patients.
“ET3 is in its infancy,” Ferguson added, “If you call 9-1-1, we come to your home, and we assess you, we can give you medical information and our best judgment as to whether or not we think you need to go to the hospital. Of course, 99% of the time, we’re going to encourage you to go because we can only access and evaluate but so much. Certainly, some folks just want to be assessed and don’t want to go to the hospital. ET3 is bridging the gap because EMS can’t send anyone to anywhere other than an emergency room.”
Given the situation, ET3 allows EMS technicians to consult with physicians while in a patient’s home to assess and determine the best treatment. ET3 is one example of a model Fire & EMS may use to serve Botetourt County citizens better thanks to the broadband expansion.
Ferguson explained that while there are many possibilities regarding the broadband expansion and how it relates to Botetourt County Fire & EMS, the process is still evolving.
“From a Fire & EMS perspective, one thing I’ve heard in the community is the excitement of access to broadband that has never been there before,” Ferguson explained. “It’s all in the flux of change and evolving to get to the point where telemedicine and telehealth are more available to the community.
“There are a lot of possibilities, and certainly the expansion of that broadband footprint is what is going to give us that opportunity [to utilize more technology],” Ferguson continued. “but we’re not there yet.”
In the long term, accessing specific applications, weather conditions, and getting close eyes on situations where there isn’t connectivity are all a part of Botetourt County Fire & EMS’s plans to utilize the current broadband expansion, which will conclude in 2022.
For more information about Botetourt County’s broadband expansion, visit www.bocobroadband.info.