USDA awards $2.3M to Alaska telemedicine, distance learning

The U.S. Department of Agriculture chose Thursday, National Rural Health Day, to announce $2.3 million in grants to support telemedicine and distance learning programs in Alaska.

Jim Nordlund is the Alaska state director of the USDA Rural Development program. He says some of the grants, such as $420,000 going to the North Slope Borough, will be used to link health clinics and hospitals. He says the new Internet connections will improve access to emergency medical care, behavioral health and other services.

“You certainly can’t have a doctor or physician in each village. But if you can do certain diagnoses and certain even examinations through telemedicine equipment that can be supervised by a doctor at a hospital at a hub community like Bethel or Barrow,” Nordlund said. “This form of telecommunication or telemedicine has actually been pioneered in Alaska over the years.”

Other grants he says will go to improve distance learning.

“In smaller villages they can’t afford teachers of several different disciplines and so some of those disciplines are actually taught from school district headquarters where you can get more say economy of scale,” said Nordlund. “It’s an effective way of delivering programs to isolated rural areas like we have in a village setting.”

One of the largest grants is to the Yukon-Koyukuk school district, which includes schools in Allakaket, Hughes, Kaltag, Koyuk, Manley Hot Springs, Minto, Nulato, and Ruby.

Technology director Luke Meinert says the district has done what it could to stretch the capabilities of the one or two videoconferencing units it now has each of the district’s nine schools. They created a bridge to allow people to join the network with mobile devices or laptops. But he says that easier access came with the price of lower quality:

“Let’s say the instructor’s showing her screen. She’s showcasing something that they want the students to see, and that’s sometimes lost just showing over a laptop or a desktop, even when its’ projected, it kind of gets funky,” said Meinert. “And then, the instructor will be able to see the students much better. A lot of times currently in some of our schools they’re just relying on a little camera on a laptop, which it’s hard to capture a large number of students.”

Other grant awards include:

  • $279,106 to the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, Inc. to build an interactive tele-psychiatry network that delivers mental and behavioral health services to seven end-user sites (six schools and one children’s home)
  • $497,572 to the Bering Strait School District to purchase video conferencing equipment to increase access between Bering Strait School District offices and 15 public schools
  • $290,188 to Alaska Children’s Services, Inc. to build an interactive tele-psychiatry network delivering mental and behavioral health services to schools in Kalskag, Bethel, Chuathbaluk, Crooked Creek, and Stoney River.
  • $420,027 to the North Slope Borough to purchase video telemedicine equipment for 10 sites above the Arctic Circle in the North Slope Borough
  • $354,647 to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to install video conferencing equipment in 13 schools