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A rural health information exchange in Montana can now boast of the same modernized Internet and telecommunications connections as that in large metropolitan areas with the dedication of a 425-mile fiber optic network that will speed up patient record sharing and accelerate expansion of tele-health services.
The Health Information Exchange of Montana (HIEM), a consortium of five hospitals and two federally funded community health centers in northern areas of the state, led a partnership including the Federal Communications Commission and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and local telecommunications providers to update to the fiber optics connections.
BNSF Railway was instrumental in helping with the first section of the network route with fiber that follows the tracks from the towns of Whitefish to Conrad over the Continental Divide, which is rugged and mountainous terrain, and communities are geographically isolated.
In recent years, the railway has placed fiber along their right of way in the region over the mountains and forests of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet reservation.
With $13.6 million from the FCC’s Rural Health Care Pilot Program and $2.4 million cash match from local network partners, HIEM, which formed in 2006, plans to connect 21 hospitals and clinics to create one of the most advanced healthcare technology networks in Montana.
“Without this collaboration and sense of partnership, our dream of a secure, dedicated fiber optic healthcare network would never have become a reality,” said Kip Smith, HIEM executive director, in an Aug. 28 announcement. HIEM also participates in the development of Montana HealthShare, the statewide HIE.
Clinicians have already reported much quicker access to patient electronic medical records, making critical information available at the point of care and resulting in more efficient patient interactions, according to Charles Pearce, chief information and financial officer for Kalispell Regional Healthcare.
“This fiber network will vastly improve patient care and physician communication in the region while providing the opportunity for development and expansion of tele-health and tele-medicine services,” he said.
Kalispell Regional’s Winkley Women’s Center, a mobile mammography coach, found improved clarity of their images and faster turnaround in providing screening results to women in the rural and frontier communities it serves, he said.
The HIEM network will also expand connectivity for professional healthcare education through the University of Montana and local community colleges.