Minnesota’s Digital Opportunity Plan works to close the digital divide for Cook County residents
Wilderness Health

Minnesota’s Digital Opportunity Plan works to close the digital divide for Cook County residents

Access to high-speed internet and digital tools is a crucial modern society resource to facilitate access to education, healthcare, job opportunities, and civic participation. 

To address the disparities in access to technology across the nation, Congress passed the Digital Equity Act in Nov. 2021, appropriating $2.75 billion to help Americans improve access to technology. To receive this funding, each state is required to develop a digital opportunity plan

Minnesota is actively undergoing plan development and is collecting public input via listening sessions and surveys. The Department of Employment and Economic Development Office of Broadband Development (OBD) has tasked numerous healthcare providers across the state to host and gather this data. 

In northeastern Minnesota, Wilderness Health, a collaborative independent health care provider, worked alongside North Shore Health, The Hub, the Grand Marais Library, and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to survey Cook County residents to understand the stories behind internet and digital access. 

The results of the Cook County survey showed of the 141 online and in-person respondents, over 23 percent said their most significant issue with technology was their lack of digital skills. These experiences with technology included wanting more training and experience and feeling technology moved too fast for them to keep up with. 

Twenty percent of respondents listed internet expense as a driving factor for lack of access, and 23 percent said their home internet was disconnected for five days or more due to a technical problem such as bad weather. 

Internet access plays an essential role in providing health care to rural residents. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents said they used the internet to access healthcare services once a week, and 39 percent used Telehealth once a week. 

“We feel that everyone deserves to have the same access to health care, no matter where they live,” said Zomi Bloom, a Telehealth Program Manager. “We also know that in Cook County, you might be driving two and a half hours just to get to a doctor’s appointment, especially if it’s a specialist. So having Telehealth available really makes sure that people have better access to specialists that they need.”

The survey results will be incorporated into long-term strategies to identify and build telehealth programs for residents in northeastern Minnesota. In addition, the results will be turned in to the state at the end of Sept. and compiled to provide a comprehensive overview of each county’s digital needs.

WTIP’s Kalli Hawkins spoke with two individuals within Wilderness Health, Zomi Bloom, a Telehealth Program Manager, and Chance Lasher, a telehealth intern, about the results of the Cook County survey. Audio from the interview is below.