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Opinion: Physical, virtual infrastructure investments needed for better care

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At a recent event sponsored by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, I was given the opportunity to address local and state political leaders regarding the importance of ongoing investment in infrastructure in Springfield. You may be wondering why someone who works in health care is concerned with the infrastructure of our community. Good question.

Discussions of infrastructure often include investments in roads, bridges, public transportation and similar initiatives that serve to support the needs of the public. Those same investments have a significant impact on the health and well-being of a community. 
However, in addition to those areas, any discussion about infrastructure today must include digital resources and the ongoing importance of virtual connectivity in our lives. As with good physical transportation, the need for virtual access is increasingly important every day in health care.

Health care providers always have been concerned with getting patients to the right location of care at the right time. That has never been more true than it is today, and ongoing investment in physical and virtual infrastructure is critical to ensuring patients have access to the health care services they need. This allows for better management of both acute and chronic conditions. Access to the appropriate level of care at the right time can prevent us from having to unnecessarily seek higher levels of care and incur much higher costs, and the physical infrastructure of our city plays a key role in that access. 
Easy access to an urgent care facility, for instance, often can be the difference between getting care in an appropriate setting or having to seek out that care at an emergency room.

When we think about infrastructure, public transportation often comes to mind. It would be great to have a light rail or similar type of public transportation that one could hop on and get dropped off right in front of Hammons Field, one of our local breweries and restaurants or any number of businesses downtown or on Commercial Street where parking can sometimes be challenging. That same light rail could easily pass very near to several health care providers and resources. While such public transportation investments would help the people of Springfield with access to health care, and no doubt benefit local business, it isn’t the only type of infrastructure we need.

One recent development in the management of health is virtual care. Health care providers in Springfield utilize virtual care in new and different ways almost daily. For example: In our initial response to the COVID-19 virus, CoxHealth went from seeing approximately 900 virtual patients on demand every month, to seeing that same number every couple of days. Patients have become accustomed to utilizing technology for many needs in life.

Another very important service impacted by the advent of virtual care is mental health. For some time now, access to mental health services in Springfield, as with other areas of the country, has been nothing if not challenging. The ongoing push by local providers to increase the quantity and quality of mental health services provided in a virtual setting has had a significant impact on the availability of that care in our community. Most of the physicians I know point to this as a game-changer in mental health care available to their patients.

Virtual care also is allowing for the extension of specialty care to rural areas of southwest Missouri. 
This includes virtual intensive care units, stroke care and other forms of highly specialized medical care that simply wasn’t available locally prior to the advent of virtual care technologies.

These virtual platforms are increasing demands on the information backbone in the Ozarks. Recent investments by local leadership in gigabit technology are welcome and must continue as imaging and information demands increase.

Virtual care solutions do have their limitations. We haven’t quite figured out how to give flu shots or take out someone’s gallbladder over telemedicine, yet. 
When we do, it will require bandwidth capacity like we have never seen before. Until then, we need a good balance of investment in physical and virtual means of creating access to health care and to local businesses.

Infrastructure is a perennial priority for state and local government. It isn’t new or often exciting, but it is critical to the health and well-being of the business community and the individuals who live, work and play here. 
Keep pressing your state and local representatives to invest in the infrastructure of Springfield – both the physical and the virtual.

David Raney is the vice president of network services at CoxHealth and vice chair of public affairs for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at david.raney@coxhealth.com.

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