Friday, October 23, 2020

Telehealth program at public library in rural northeast Texas could serve as a nationwide blueprint to bridge digital gap

Pottsboro, Texas (Wikipedia map)
Telehealth has been touted as one way to bridge the gap in rural health-care access. But poor broadband access limits its potential to help. Rural public libraries can help expand rural broadband access and help local residents improve their health in other ways, as the library in Pottsboro, Texas, pop. 2,160, shows. Its innovative practices could serve as a blueprint for other libraries nationwide, Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder.

Pottsboro Public Library director Dianne Connerly told Settles that the library is about "internet access" and "innovation," not "storytimes or even books, really." About 10 years ago, the library was poorly funded and on the verge of closing. So Connerly and volunteers began pursuing innovative grant proposals that they figured would make them more likely to get funding.

"Early on these innovations took a healthy turn," Settles reports. "Grant money funded a community garden because Pottsboro is a 'health desert.' Many residents don’t have transportation, so the library got cargo bicycles that enable people to reach the nearest grocery store and bring home food. They also started 100 individual garden beds so homes can grow their own organic produce and fruits."

The library also received a $25,000 grant to put internet access in low-income students' homes by loaning portable broadband hotspots, Settles reports. The grant covered the installation of wireless equipment on water towers in the community so the hotspots would work. Another grant funded three neighborhood broadband access hotspots that stay out in the community.

When the pandemic began, more patrons began calling the Pottsboro library and asking for hotspot loaners or a space on-site for telehealth appointments. Connerly offered her office, the library's only private room, as a place where patrons could have telehealth consultations, Settles reports.

Connerly applied for and won a $20,000 grant to launch a substantial telehealth program, and within the next two months, the library will add a soundproof room, monitors, good lighting, and enhance the internet connection, Settles reports. In January, they'll be ready for patrons to regularly contact their doctors from the library.

Connerly is blazing the trail; few other rural libraries have advanced as far with such programs, though many other rural librarians she's spoken with agree that libraries are a natural fit for delivering telehealth. "According to Connerly, rural libraries have a huge advantage because typically they are given freedom to innovate," Settles reports.

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