- Federal officials reaffirmed the government’s interest in expanding broadband connectivity and bringing telehealth tools to bear on the opioid abuse epidemic during this week’s Connected Health Conference in Boston.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai took the stage Thursday to note several federal efforts to expand broadband access to rural and remote regions to help healthcare providers improve and expand telehealth and telemedicine programs. He also announced an expansion of the agency’s Mapping Broadband Health in America program to include critical drug abuse data, and the launch of a chronic pain management and opioid solutions challenge by the Connect2Health Task Force.
“We hope this challenge will stimulate innovation in broadband-based solutions - solutions that could complement and extend current interventions for drug abuse and opioid use disorders,” Pai said. “For example, broadband can facilitate more robust Prescription Drug Monitoring Program solutions. It can provide alternate or complementary pain management strategies. It can increase access to mental health providers via telehealth. It can help better target methadone management and other addiction services for rural and remote populations. It can enhance opioid abuse and mortality surveillance. And it can enable predictive analytics among the most at-risk populations - just to name a few possibilities.”
Pai’s speech helped launch the second day of the three-day annual conference, co-produced by Partners HealthCare and the Personal Connected Health Alliance. The event’s theme as “Balancing Technology and the Human Element,” with much of the conversation in education sessions and on the exhibit hall floor focused on how telehealth and mHealth platforms can and should improve the doctor-patient relationship.
That’s not always an easy task.
Technology “has kind of crowded out the caring part,” noted Dr. Joseph Kvedar, Vice President of Connected Health for Partners and the event’s founding father.
Kvedar called on healthcare providers to work with new technology rather than competing against it, and find a way to apply it that improves both the patient’s experience and the provider’s workflow. He also called on providers to ditch the idea that every patient needs to be seen in person, especially in a day and age when telehealth technology can replicate the doctor’s visit on a mobile device.
“Start to get your mind out of that one-to-one always service delivery,” he said.
For Pai, the conversation focused on giving providers federal support to use that technology, and expanding the healthcare network to reach underserved Americans.
“(I)t’s becoming harder to recruit doctors to serve rural communities,” he said, noting his father was a doctor serving the residents of Parsons, Kansas. “It’s becoming harder to keep rural hospitals afloat. And so it’s becoming harder for many rural patients to get healthcare - ironically, at a moment when vital signs for those patients and rural America generally are suggesting trouble. That’s what makes the combination of technology and health so critical, and why this issue matters so much to me.”
Pai noted he’s logged more than 11,000 miles and visited 41 states to see how the nation’s healthcare system is using connected health technology, and where federal support could improve that process.
“(T)echnologies that are available right now can dramatically improve the quality of healthcare for millions of Americans,” he said. “Getting everybody connected and promoting adoption of current tools by both doctors and patients would be a game-changer.”
To that end, he noted the FCC’s – and his – accomplishments over the past two years. This includes $1.5 billion in grants this past summer through the Connect America Fund to leverage private investment that will bring fixed broadband to 700,000 unserved homes and businesses. And more than $4.5 billion funneled through the Mobility Fund during the next 10 years to deploy 4G LTE service to rural parts of the country, as well as efforts to speed the development and deployment of 5G services.
Pai also noted that he was successful in boosting federal funding of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program from $400 million – a cap that had been set when the fund was created some 20 years ago – to $571 million, with plans in place to adjust that cap each year for inflation.
With that expansion, he said the fund is set to meet all qualified funding requests from rural healthcare providers seeking help to expand broadband connectivity.
Pai also made a pitch for the proposed $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program, aimed at boosting remote patient monitoring and other mHealth and telehealth programs for veterans and low-income families.
“Our thinking is that patients would benefit from services delivered directly in their homes - such as sensor-based remote monitoring - instead of just brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities,” he said.
Finally, Pai noted two digital health initiatives now under way: The LAUNCH (Linking and Amplifying User-Centered Networks) program, a partnership with the National Cancer Institute, to address cancer care in rural parts of the country, such as Appalachia; and federal programs using telemedicine to help healthcare providers address the opioid abuse crisis.
“We have the technology; we have broad support across ideological lines,” he concluded. “We have the energies of the public and private sectors. We can harness the power of digital technology to improve the health of our citizens.”