Satellite internet improves mobile health care
The Health Wagon got its start in 1980 when Sister Bernadette Kenny, a nurse practitioner, began dispensing free, much-needed health care to people in rural Appalachia from her Volkswagen Beetle.
“She was thinking outside the box,” says Health Wagon President and CEO Teresa Tyson.
Kenny served as inspiration, Tyson says, when the health care provider’s leaders decided to switch to satellite internet service through SpaceX’s Starlink. The Elon Musk-owned service brings the web to hard-to-reach places via its constellation of low-Earth-orbiting satellites. For two years of service and hardware, Starlink internet will cost the Health Wagon $18,050, which has been covered through donations, Tyson says.
The Health Wagon operates multiple mobile clinics that regularly visit 13 sites in Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott and Wise counties. The nonprofit also operates two stationary medical clinics, in Wise and Clintwood, and a dental clinic in Wise.
Previously, the mobile clinic’s health care workers relied on cellular hotspots that weren’t always reliable. “It’s just not ideal, especially if there’s more than two people using it,” says Bo Cash, IT system administrator for the Health Wagon.
Three of the mobile clinic’s stops — all in Dickenson County — lacked cell service. That meant patients at those stops couldn’t access telehealth visits with specialists, and Health Wagon workers were “out there kind of blind without being able to look at electronic health records” to view patient medical histories and prescriptions, Tyson says.
That is changing with Starlink, which also allows Health Wagon workers to use tools like a retina camera that can send images to UVA Health in real time. “Now, we can take that camera out on the road with us and do these retinal screenings for eye disease,” Tyson says.
In addition to extending internet access, Cash and Tyson feel confident Starlink will offer faster and more dependable service than the cellular hotspots. “It’s going to [produce] improved patient outcomes and that translates into improved health care and saved lives,” says Tyson.
Dr. Joseph Aloi, Wake Forest Baptist Health’s section chief for endocrinology and metabolism, has volunteered with the Health Wagon for about two decades. With satellite internet, he’s hopeful the staff will have an easier time sending him patient data and that patients will have smoother telehealth visits.
“It’ll just minimize hiccups,” he says.
Virginia Business Associate Editor Katherine Schulte contributed to this story.