Construction recently started on a new $18 million fiber-optic medical network that dramatically will increase the speed of information transmission among health care facilities in the Rural Nebraska Healthcare Network (RNHN).

The RNHN is a consortium of eight critical access hospitals, one regional referral center and 30 related clinics offering service to approximately 90,000 residents in an area about 14,000 square miles. The network's information capacity will increase from the current T1 line's 1.5 megabyte per second to fiber optics' 1 gigabyte per second.

Adesta LLC, Omaha, Neb., began digging trenches and laying cable for the system a week after a groundbreaking was held Nov. 19 at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Neb. The 750-mile fiber network will span 12 counties in western Nebraska.

Dan Griess, CEO, Box Butte General Hospital, one of nine hospitals in the consortium, calls the fiber-optic system a "dirt road-to-autobahn upgrade" for the RNHN. For example, a radiological image that takes roughly 25 minutes to move over a T1 cable line will zip through a fiber-optic cable "in the blink of an eye."

Todd Sorensen, M.D., CEO, Regional West Medical Center, says a patient's computed tomography scan was sent via T1 line to a receiving hospital as the patient was transferred to the same hospital in an ambulance. The patient arrived before the scan transmission was completed, illustrating the benefits of fiber-optic cables, he says.