Education and Healthcare

Of primary importance, education and healthcare dominated discussions of the shared Broadband needs throughout the Arctic.

The high costs and poor outcomes in northern healthcare are well known and documented. Northerners, and in particular Indigenous Northerners, have lower life expectancies, higher disease burdens, and deal disproportionately from mental illness and addictions. High healthcare budgets, which are higher per capita in every Arctic state for their northern versus southern populations, have not been a solution to ill health.

According to Heather Exner-Pirot & Lorna Butler of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan, one obvious solution to the challenges of high costs and poor access is telehealth: a means of delivering medical information and health care through the use of telecommunication technologies.

Telehealth has the potential to both limit high medical transportation costs which, for example, cost the Government of Nunavut $69 million, or about $1865/person, in Nunavut in 2015 alone, and improve access for rural and remote residents to high quality services and specialists which they could not otherwise access.

Telehealth is often thought of as just videoconferencing in a telehealth suite, but there are many new applications in many fields from psychiatry to dermatology. Pirot and Butler identify expanding use of telehealth for video consults, 24/7 primary care, counseling, telepharmacy and oral health care services, all of which can keep families in their own communities. This can improve continuity of care and can improve cultural competency.

Heather Hudson, Affiliate Professor with the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Alaska Anchorage states, “Access to broadband is necessary to participate in the digital economy – for access to services such as online banking, ecommerce, government programs, education and training, telehealth, community and small business entrepreneurship. These services are particularly important for isolated, primarily indigenous communities across the Arctic.” She goes on to say that, “Alaska has 200 villages scattered over more than 663,000 square miles, while in northern Canada, there are a similar number of isolated indigenous communities in the three northern territories and the northern regions of the provinces.”

The Alaska Online with Libraries (OWL) program in the United States, provides tutoring and educational support in Alaska’s Arctic through the use of videoconferencing. The OWL Program began in 2011 as the OWL Project with federal funds provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and administered through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the US Department of Commerce. In 2013, the successful OWL Project became State of Alaska funded and was renamed the Alaska Online With Libraries program.

OWL connects 95 public libraries throughout Alaska in partnership with the University of Alaska and can connect up to ten (10) sites simultaneously for full two-way video conferences. One library director puts it this way, “Distances between villages are great, and none are accessible by road. OWL video conference services provide in many case the only access the citizens of our remote areas have to higher education, workforce development trainings, Alaska Native language, history and culture classes and programs, health education trainings, and distance job interviews.”

What are we doing to open more opportunities such as this throughout the Arctic? be continued in Part 3.

The Arctic Broadband Forum 2017 was hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was a key initiative of the UArctic Thematic Network on Arctic Telecommunications and Networking. #tabf2017