FCC continues focus on broadband-enabled healthcare

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has decided to continue the work of the Connect2Health Task Force, created in 2014 to accelerate the adoption of healthcare technologies by leveraging broadband and other next-generation communications services.

The task force, which serves as an umbrella for all FCC health-related activities, has been spearheaded by FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and she will continue to lead the effort—along with Michele Ellison, the task force’s chair.

“Over the past three years, the Connect2Health Task Force has been on the cutting edge of examining the intersection of broadband, advanced technology and health,” said Clyburn. “The task force has and will continue to ensure that the commission is equipped with the data and information it needs to understand the rapidly evolving landscape for broadband-enabled healthcare. Armed with this knowledge, we can narrow the digital and opportunities divide to ensure much needed health and wellness solutions reach all Americans.”

Nonetheless, Clyburn acknowledges that much work remains to ensure that the potential of broadband to improve people’s lives is realized, particularly in rural and underserved areas of the United States.

According to the FCC, 34 million Americans, or roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population, lacks access to high-speed broadband—defined as download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps).

“With the continuation of the task force, the Chairman (Pai) has signaled his ongoing commitment to closing the digital divide,” said Ellison. “Nowhere is that gap more acutely felt than in those ‘double-burden’ areas with low connectivity and high health need.”

“Being on the wrong side of the broadband divide can have real health consequences, making the difference between temporary and permanent disability and even life and death,” she added. “In keeping with its renewed charge, the task force will be laser-focused on rural and underserved populations and work to bridge the broadband health gap in critical need communities.”

To help assess where broadband and technology can and should bring vital services to underserved communities, the Connect2Health Task Force last year launched the FCC’s Mapping Broadband Health in America initiative. As part of the effort, the FCC released an interactive tool to enable those in both the public and private sectors to access and analyze statistics about broadband connectivity—as well as health and other indexes—on a national, state, and county level.

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“This tool represents a monumental step in identifying areas where there are opportunities for telehealth and complementary initiatives across the nation,” said Clyburn. “We believe that it will help bring more awareness to the importance of providing communities with advanced health services through an innovative mapping platform. It is designed to assist those committed to closing infrastructure gaps, to ensure that everyone has access to the technology necessary, and enable quick and top-rated healthcare assistance.”

The web-based mapping tool displays broadband access, adoption and speed data along with health measures—such as obesity, diabetes, disabilities and physician access—at the county level, including comparisons between urban and rural areas. Not surprisingly, counties where 60 percent of households lack access to broadband have higher rates of diabetes (35 percent higher) and obesity (25 percent higher).

By leveraging data from the tool, the FCC was able to identify what it calls the 100 “critical need” counties—those communities with limited broadband access and very high health needs. All counties in the U.S. were considered for inclusion in the Priority 100, while only counties with majority rural population were considered for the Rural 100. The FCC’s hope is that these lists of critical need counties will help to better drive decision-making and to create a roadmap for private investment and coordinated public support.

The tool “will not only allow communities to understand how they compare to others in their respective states, or other parts of the country, but healthcare providers now will be able to effortlessly pinpoint areas that need additional attention and support,” concluded Clyburn.

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