Telehealth and the Hunt For the Silent Killer

[Broadband Communities Magazine blog post 12/9/19]

140,000 people die from strokes every year! Most of these are caused by hypertension (high blood pressure) and stress. December can be a real killer.

Barbershops probably aren’t the first place you think to hold the line in this fight against hypertension. But you have to go where the people are. Community broadband (highspeed Internet access) and telehealth can get you there.

This month starts a five-city, six-week telehealth pilot project barbershops and hair salons in which urban and rural communities will connect USB blood pressure cuffs to telehealth platforms via community networks in a pilot project to attack hypertension, the leading cause of strokes.

There are several significant benefits for uniting community broadband and telehealth. Telehealth can motivate barbershops’ customers to sign up for broadband, which means new subscriber revenue. For example in one of the pilot cities, 27% Cleveland, Ohio’s 173,025 households don’t have Internet access according to the 2018 American Community Survey. How can telehealth impact community efforts such as Cleveland’s DigitalC, a non-profit ISP with a $20/month, 50 Mbps wireless service that targets underserved neighborhoods?

“Cleveland Clinic is aggressively marketing telehealth, providing access to patience for $55 for a video doctor consultation and a noted tele-stroke center,” says Bill Callahan, Research and Policy Director at National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “MetroHealth hospital also also offers telehealth capabilities. Barbershops and hair salons offering telehealth from these hospitals could drive new subscribers to DigitalC and Cleveland’s free wireless network in the Old Brooklyn section of town.”

Telehealth can be a hook to retain current subscribers on your network. A barbershops can be an anchor for a broadband or telehealth pilot. In addition, barbershops and customers are great for word-of-mouth marketing. Is there grant money that can fund the broadband/telehealth package?

During the pilots, stakeholders will assess how telehealth can 1) impact the current broadband infrastructure, 2) benefit the neighborhoods, and 3) influence broadband adoption.  The assessments will lay out groundwork for a national expansion of telehealth through barbershops and salons community broadband anchors.

When the pilot concludes, expect that these shops will become catalysts for expanding community broadband throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, and residents can begin exploring various aspects of telehealth in their homes.

Telehealth takes barbers back to their roots

Barbershops originated in Egyptians in 5000 BC, and at one point barbers actually did surgery and dentistry. Consider telehealth as taking the barbershop back to its roots.

Waverley Willis, owner of Cleveland’s Urban Kutz, says, “Barbers and hairdressers are part-time marriage counselors, psychiatrists, spiritual advisers, and expert listeners. So many customers listen to our medical advice.” His barbershop is one of the five pilot sites. He’s been doing blood pressure screening for 12 years, and screens in between 15 and 35 customers a week.

Hypertension strikes everywhere, but particularly among African Americans. Just 12% of the U.S. population, yet annually 100,000 die from strokes – twice as many as other ethnic groups combined. 40% of African American have hypertension. “I find at least 90% of my customers have high blood pressure, and many don’t know about the dangers of hypertension,” says Willis. Several customers’ blood pressure was so high they had to go straight to the ER.

Adding telehealth capabilities to the screening process enable customers can access educational content about stroke and heart attack prevention, hypertension, and wellness programs. As part of the pilot, the stakeholders will explore how barbershops and hair salon can maximize the shops’ telehealth connection and various available technologies.

For example, if a hospital offers 24/7 patient/doctor telehealth video consults, so does it makes sense to have an easy bridge for shops’ customers to transition from viewing their blood pressure levels to seeing a doctor right away if something seems wrong? The pilot includes free easy-to-use telehealth software if customers want to easily schedule online video chats with their own doctors.

Telehealth, and healthcare in general, can be the great hook when searching for investors, grants, and loans. Foundations may not know the difference between a gigabit and a draft, but they understand the drawing power of improved health care, especially in unserved and underserved communities.

On the TV medical melodrama, New Amsterdam, the leading actor said “There’s no reason that healthcare has to be delivered in a hospital. In fact, patients are best served in an environment where they are made comfortable. By trusted members of their own community. Hospitals have to go meet patients where they are, not the other way around.” So he recruited barbershops to screen for hypertension. These pilots take screening to the next level.

This pilot project is being financed through a GoFundMe campaign. Call 510-387-4176 for more info.

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