July 20, 2021

FCC awards Heartland Health Centers grant to help narrow digital divide for patients

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Connected Care is a 3-year program to invest in hotspots for patients, Internet access for clinics, and state-of-the-art Telehealth platform

The digital divide just got a little smaller for health-care consumers in Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods and near northern suburbs.  

In June, the Federal Communications Commission awarded Heartland Health Centers $693,000 as one of 32 health centers and hospitals around the country to receive Connected Care grants to invest in the future of healthcare.  

Heartland Health Centers was selected because of its wide array of services offered and its potential impact on the low-income population in its communities, according to the FCC news release. The three-year grant comes from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund.  

Funds will upgrade data infrastructure at Heartland Health Centers’ clinics in Chicago and Skokie, support a state-of-the-art telehealth platform, and provide hotspots for some patient households without Internet access. Ultimately, the goal is to provide support for patients to take part in their own care and to provide more holistic, high-quality healthcare. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth provided access while protecting our patients,” says Ron Chacko, MD, Clinical Director of Data and Digital Services for Heartland Health Centers. “While COVID infection rates are declining, the desire to receive care at home has not, and telehealth has opened the door to new ways of providing care outside the clinic. It’s blending high tech with high touch.” 

The future of healthcare includes more technology and with that sharing more data to support better face to face relationships between providers and patients, Chacko says. For example, Heartland Health Center is participating in a national hypertension control initiative to provide patients access to Bluetooth-enabled blood pressure monitors. 

With training, patients will be able to check their own blood pressure and share that data with Heartland Health Centers providers between clinic visits, he notes. The Connected Care grant can help provide hotspots for the households of patients monitoring their blood pressure who lack Internet access.  

One-third of Americans had a telehealth visit to discuss their own healthcare during the first six months of the pandemic, researchers at the Urban Institute found. But access can remain a problem for those Heartland Health Center serves – anyone living close to the poverty level, especially individuals and families in refugee and immigrant communities and communities of color on the North and Northwest sides and near northern suburbs.  

“This grant will help us provide a higher level of health care digital access,” says Valentin Zaldivar, Director, Patient Access & Practice Transformation at Heartland Health Centers. “It’s also a chance to provide a solution for patients and our providers and help us learn something about how to do that along the way.” 

“Broadband can bring back the house call in a new way and expand the reach of doctors, mental health professionals, and other providers,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks stated after last week’s meeting in Washington, D.C.  “That’s a game changer—but not for the many communities that remain on the wrong side of the digital divide.”