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FCC Seeks Input on Broadband Expansion for mHealth, Telehealth

The FCC and its Connect2Health Task Force are collecting comments on the state of the nation's broadband infrastructure, with an eye toward improving broadband access for mHealth and telehealth programs.

Source: ThinkStock

- Federal officials are seeking advice from the telemedicine and mHealth community on how to improve broadband access for healthcare.

The Federal Communication Commission and its Connect2Health Task Force are accepting comments through May 24 (reply comments are accepted through June 8) on “a variety of regulatory, policy and infrastructure issues related to the emerging broadband-enabled health and care ecosystem,” particularly in rural and underserved regions.

Officials were quick to point out the phrase “heath and care” isn’t a typo.

“We use the phrase ‘health and care’ deliberately … to reflect and include the broad range of participants in the emerging broadband health ecosystem, including providers (e.g., health systems, community health centers, clinicians, pharmacists, nutritionists, allied health professionals); public health and social service agencies and organizations; innovators and entrepreneurs; academic and research facilities; state and local policymakers; patients and their caregivers; as well as consumers who seek support to prevent disease and maintain optimum health,” reads the notice, posted earlier this month in the Federal Register.

Broadband connectivity and access to high-speed Internet services are often listed as barriers to the advancement of telehealth, particularly in remote and rural regions. Healthcare providers have in some cases reported delaying or even cancelling proposed telemedicine programs because they couldn’t be assured that the platform would have adequate connectivity.

Telehealth advocates, meanwhile, argue that broadband access could tip the scales on projects that could boost clinical outcomes and save money.

“Technology innovations in clinical practice and care delivery coupled with burgeoning consumer reliance on mHealth and health information technology (or health IT) are fundamentally changing the face of healthcare, and a widespread, accessible broadband infrastructure is critical to this ongoing shift,” the notice states. “Indeed, the future of modern healthcare appears to be fundamentally premised on the widespread availability and accessibility of high-speed connectivity. By some estimates, broadband-enabled health information technology can help to improve the quality of healthcare and significantly lower healthcare costs by hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decades. However, the United States remains behind some advanced countries in the adoption of such technology.”

FCC officials go on to say that better broadband could help the nation resolve the gap between its growing population of aging residents and people with chronic conditions and its shrinking population of doctors – it estimates the nation will face a shortage of as many as 94,700 physicians by 2025.

The notice also cites telehealth’s impact on the nation’s veterans.

“Most notably, critical mental health services are now accessible via telemedicine to those veterans living in rural areas or abroad,” the document reads. “In fiscal year 2014, more than 690,000 military veterans accessed the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration's (VA) healthcare network using telemedicine programs, reflecting more than 1.7 million episodes of care. The Veterans Health Administration notes that “[telemedicine] technology is now considered `mission critical' for effectively delivering quality healthcare to veterans, particularly for those in rural or underserved areas.”

The FCC is seeking input on six issues:

  1. Promoting effective policy and regulatory solutions that encourage broadband adoption and promote health IT;
  2. Identifying regulatory barriers (and incentives) to the deployment of RF-enabled advanced healthcare technologies and devices;
  3. Strengthening the nation's telehealth infrastructure through the FCC's Rural Health Care Program and other initiatives;
  4. Raising consumer awareness about the value proposition of broadband in the healthcare sector and its potential for addressing healthcare disparities;
  5. Enabling the development of broadband-enabled health technologies that are designed to be fully accessible to people with disabilities;
  6. Highlighting effective telehealth projects, broadband-enabled health technologies and mHealth applications across the country and abroad, to identify lessons learned, best practices and regulatory challenges; and
  7. Engaging a diverse array of traditional and non-traditional stakeholders to identify emerging issues and opportunities in the broadband health space.

The healthcare industry’s quest for better broadband isn’t new. In late 2015, a coalition of telehealth and health IT providers, including the California Telehealth Network, New England Telehealth Consortium, Health Information Exchange of Montana, Utah Telehealth Network, Colorado Telehealth Network, Southwest Telehealth Access Grid and Schools and Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition petitioned the FCC to make changes in the Rural Health Care Program and its Healthcare Connect Fund to support more broadband access for telehealth programs.

Also supporting this effort are the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and the Personal Connected Health Alliance.

“The need amongst many rural healthcare providers for access to high quality broadband access is profound,” said Thomas Leary, HIMSS’ vice president of government relations, and PCHA Vice President Robert Havasy. “This need for wireless and wireline broadband access represents a critical component to furthering a nationwide network optimized for tomorrow’s high-quality healthcare delivery systems. Benefits of expanded broadband access include the ability to conduct secure high quality eVisits such as telemedicine and expanded remote patient monitoring within the home.”

Just last month, Alaska lawmakers joined the call for more broadband support, passing a resolution that asks the FCC to increase the Rural Health Care Universal Service Support Fund, which could then be used to invest in new broadband technology in the nation’s most remote state.

“The long-distance delivery of quality healthcare via telemedicine has made great strides in rural Alaska in recent years,” Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), the resolution’s sponsor, said. “However, we’re about to hit a roadblock.  Increasing the FCC support budget will allow healthcare providers in isolated communities to continue expanding local treatment options in ways we never could have dreamed of just a few years ago.”

“Telehealth allows patients in rural parts of Alaska access to state-of-the-art diagnostic tools and treatments that can help the sick and afflicted,” added Rep. Zach Fansler (D-Bethel). “This resolution puts the House on record supporting a proactive solution to a looming problem potentially jeopardizing healthcare for hundreds of thousands.”

Just a few days later, Montana lawmakers scarpped proposed telemedicine regaulations amid concerns that the new laws would hinder access to healthcare in parts of the state that do not have good connectivity.

The Connect2Health task force was launched in 2014 by then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to “leverage all available technologies to ensure that advanced healthcare solutions are readily accessible to all Americans, from rural and remote areas to underserved inner cities.”

Its future was reportedly in doubt under the Trump administration until FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed in March that it would continue.

“Expanding the reach of medical expertise with connectivity illustrates the potential of broadband to improve people’s lives, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” Pai said during a March 17 visit to the Cleveland Clinic. 

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