Submitted by Gov. Jay Inlsee’s office
Gov. Jay Inslee stepped into a small room in a Friday Harbor hospital on Tuesday and faced a large, white screen as if he were going to stand and watch a movie. A Bellingham pediatrician wearing a headset popped onto the screen introduced himself as Dr. Jim Bochsler and had a live conversation with the governor from 60 miles away.
It was the governor’s first telemedicine experience. But for hospital patients at the PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center, appointments like this could be part of the new normal.
What makes it possible is a strong, reliable internet connection.
Improved medical access is just one way that rural communities will benefit because of the broadband bill that Inslee signed during this year’s session. Inslee visited Skagit County and San Juan County Tuesday to explore how increased broadband access could positively impact a community’s health care, economy, education and public safety interests.
The day-long broadband tour highlighted how rural communities across the state will benefit from the governor’s broadband bill. Inslee signed it into law earlier this month after the bill unanimously passed the Senate and left the House with one ‘no’ vote. Sens. Lisa Wellman and Tim Sheldon sponsored the 2019 bipartisan broadband bill, while Reps. Zack Hudgins and Mary Dye sponsored the companion bill.
Telemedicine through strong broadband access could change the world of medicine for rural communities across Washington: Instead of a patient taking a two-hour, round-trip ferry ride to the mainland in the middle of a workday, they could make a telemedicine appointment and talk to their doctor over a live screen.
Merry-Ann Keane, the hospital’s chief administrative officer, said the clinic sees about 20 patients a month just in their telepsychiatry program.
“Those things that take our island residents literally a full day or two to get access to care can be taken care of here with a brief telemedicine appointment,” Keane said.
While telemedicine use is still emerging, medical professionals have found the practice useful for patients who need behavioral health counseling, addiction therapy, cardiology, basic follow-up visits, help after a stroke or for parents who need to contact their pediatrician.
After participating in the telemedicine demonstration, the governor attended three community broadband meetings in the area and talked with small business owners, city officials and various stakeholders about broadband connectivity, infrastructure and needs.
Inslee’s bill establishes a statewide broadband office and a grant and loan program that will help communities across the state construct and install broadband services.
“The digital divide should not limit any Washingtonian’s ability to learn, innovate or connect through robust internet access, whether it is students researching ideas at home, first responders handling an emergency or entrepreneurs launching a business,” Inslee said.
In the morning, Inslee spoke to dozens of stakeholders at the Friday Harbor High School’s STEM center. He asked for their input on what issues the upcoming Statewide Broadband Office needs on its radar.
One business owner said he needs a strong Wi-Fi connection to maintain his credit card machine because customers don’t carry as much cash as they used to. Another attendee said Friday Harbor can’t grow economically without reliable internet access.
Orcas Power and Light Cooperative board member Rick Christmas said increased broadband service significantly impacts how first responders can do their jobs.
“It wasn’t always that way in the San Juan Islands that you could call 911 and someone would pick up,” Christmas said. “This will make our lives better every day.”