FCC, NCI to increase rural broadband access for cancer patients

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The Federal Communications Commission and National Cancer Institute announced on Tuesday that the two agencies have teamed up to increase the adoption and accessibility of broadband-enabled healthcare in rural areas to improve the lives of cancer patients in underserved communities.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed by the agencies, the FCC and NCI will initially focus on a public-private collaboration to help bridge the broadband health connectivity gap in Appalachia, where residents are more likely to die of cancer than Americans living in urban parts of the country.

“The quality, length and even value of life should not be determined by where you happen to be born or live,” said Michele Ellison, Chair of the FCC’s Connect2Health Task Force, which was created in 2014 to accelerate the adoption of health IT technologies by leveraging broadband and other next-generation communications services. “And yet that’s exactly what’s happening. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in the rural parts of our country. Too many rural Americans suffer with late cancer diagnoses, unrelenting symptoms and inadequate access to care.”

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According to research from University of Virginia School of Medicine, between 1969 and 2011 cancer incidence declined in every region of the country except rural Appalachia and mortality rates skyrocketed. To address this disparity, the FCC and NCI are initiating a project—Linking & Amplifying User-Centered Networks through Connected Health (LAUNCH)—that will specifically target areas of Appalachia confronted with the dual challenge of higher cancer mortality rates and lower levels of broadband access.

The initial focus of LAUNCH is on rural Kentucky. Cancer experts, researchers and technologists from the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center (a NCI-designated cancer center), the University of California, San Diego’s Design Lab, as well as pharmaceutical company Amgen, will join forces as part of the public-private collaboration.

“Through this strategic collaboration, we will work to bring the critical connectivity piece to the cancer puzzle,” added Ellison. “Increasingly, broadband-enabled technologies are transforming the way cancer patients and survivors better manage, monitor and treat their symptoms—helping them to live longer, better quality lives. But for rural Americans with limited access to broadband, many of these connected care solutions are unavailable. Better connectivity holds the promise of bringing first-class care and treatment to anyone, anywhere.”

FCC and NCI officials made the case that broadband connectivity can be leveraged to improve symptom management for rural cancer patients, which is one of the key priorities of the 2016 Blue Ribbon Panel, a group of scientific experts created to advise the National Cancer Advisory Board.

“Research suggests that when patients report symptoms electronically to their care providers, they are almost twice as likely to report improvements to health-related quality of life than those in a disconnected control group,” said Bradford Hesse, chief of NCI’s Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch. “Electronically connected patients were also less likely to be admitted to the emergency room and had greater survival rates than patients in the control group. Collaborating with the FCC is a vital step for improving cancer outcomes for all Americans, regardless of where they live.”

Additional information about the FCC-NCI memorandum of understanding and the LAUNCH broadband health demonstration project are available here.

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