This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $16 Million in Rural Utilities Service Distance Learning and Telemedicine (RUS-DLT) grant awards, investing in telecommunications projects that will expand access to education, create jobs and improve healthcare in rural communities across 25 states.  This marks the 29th year of the RUS-DLT program – a program that has been instrumental in helping “bridge the digital divide” between rural and more urban areas across the U.S.

In a year fraught with sequestration, a government shut-down, budget cuts and funding program uncertainty, the RUS-DLT program remained strong and well-funded, due in part to tremendous political and community support.  According to the USDA, “telecommunications investments are as vital to the educational and economic fortunes of rural America as electricity was in the 1930s and 1940s.”  That’s a big statement!

RUS-DLT projects tend to vary greatly.  In many cases, rural K-12 schools are connecting to one another over distance learning to share teachers and courses, provide opportunities for student collaboration, receive professional development, and connect students with experts across the globe.  High school and vocational school students are able to connect to community and technical colleges via distance learning to take advanced courses, receive college credit and acquire career specific skills and certifications, preparing students to become “College and Career Ready” before they leave high school.

RUS-DLT telemedicine-focused projects are equally diverse.  Hospitals with specialized medical staff may connect to rural hospitals and clinics using special telemedicine equipment, providing rural residents with access to specialty healthcare like cardiology, neurology, OB-GYN, etc.  With the use of digitally connected scoping devices, patient imaging can be sent in real time and viewed in high definition by a specialist located thousands of miles away. Connecting healthcare providers at large medical centers with rural hospitals, clinics, visiting nurses, non-profit support agencies and even family care-givers can facilitate a “continuum of care” for patients once they are discharged, helping to reduce patient readmissions.

Telehealth grants can also focus on providing healthcare professionals with access to ongoing Continuing Medical Education through telecommunications connections, ensuring our rural residents receive the best possible medical care from well-trained providers.

This year’s RUS-DLT application cycle was arguably one of the most competitive in the history of the program due to increased interest and participation.  As organizations across the country look forward to the 2014 round of DLT funding, they’ll want to try and prepare as early as possible.

As a Grants-focused organization, we at Polycom always recommend starting with a Needs Assessment.  The DLT grant is all about identifying your needs and then designing a project that addresses those needs through the use of telecommunications.  As with any grant, make sure that the sites included in your project meet the intent of the grant.  The R in RUS stands for Rural!  Accordingly, the needs you identify, quantify and address should be associated with rural sites…and the benefits you realize from your project should be directed at those rural sites as well.

The Polycom Grants Assistance Program (PGAP) has provided guidance and support as organizations explored the RUS-DLT grant program in the past. To learn more about RUS-DLT grants, the application process and the technologies that RUS-DLT funds can finance, join us for an upcoming Webinar entitled, “Government Funding for Collaborative Healthcare and Education,” on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 2:00 P.M. EST. Additional information and registration can be found HERE.