Industry groups have offered their advice on how the Federal Communications Commission can accelerate the adoption and accessibility of broadband-enabled healthcare, particularly in rural and underserved communities.

In response to a government request for comment, the American Hospital Association has recommended the FCC update its Rural Health Care Program to meet the growing demand for broadband telehealth services, while the American Medical Informatics Association has urged the agency to consider access to broadband among the social determinants of health when developing future policies and programs.

“The need is evident for technologies that lower costs, connect remote populations and expand the reach of urban-centered medical expertise,” wrote Ashley Thompson, AHA’s senior vice president for public policy analysis and development, in a May 23 letter to the agency. “Effective telehealth services depend on broadband connections that are reliable and robust…additional modifications are still needed to ensure the benefits of telehealth are being realized in rural communities.”

In addition, Thompson pointed out that electronic health records, technology-based patient engagement strategies and remote monitoring technologies all require robust broadband connections.

Toward those ends, AHA recommended several actions by the FCC: increasing the Rural Health Care Program funding cap and the Health Care Connect Fund discount percentage; reducing the administrative burden of Rural Health Care Program; supporting consortium administrative expenses and remote patient monitoring as an eligible expense; as well as reconsidering how it defines an eligible rural area.

In its comments, AMIA believes that access to broadband is—or soon will become—a social determinant of health, and it advocates policies that enable patients to participate in the fast-changing mobile health ecosystem.

“Much like access to, and utilization of, high-quality healthcare and prevention strategies, mobile health technologies that rely on broadband services have a wide adoption variance based on geography, population density, and socioeconomic status,” wrote AMIA President and CEO Doug Fridsma in a May 24 letter to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. “Vulnerable groups face specific challenges related to inadequate access to affordable and consistent high-speed Internet. Race, ethnic and age disparities in patient portal use and readiness and preferences for using digital communication for health-related purposes have shown to be significant, and this, in turn, reduces their ability to participate in many new and exciting mHealth solutions.”

Doug Fridsma, MD
Doug Fridsma, MD

In his letter to Pai, Fridsma identified ways the agency might support broadband-enabled healthcare delivery, including:

  • Partnering with federal, state and local agencies to leverage broadband-enabled health solutions and technologies against the opioid epidemic.
  • Aligning programs that can bolster efforts to better target those with chronic conditions, and ensure that these populations have access to affordable broadband and broadband-enabled health technologies.
  • Examining other agency sources of administrative data, such as CMS, ONC and CDC, among others, to assess broadband-enabled health solutions capacity and needs.
  • Leveraging the work done by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace to ameliorate privacy and security concerns in accessing healthcare-related information via public broadband.

According to the FCC, the industry feedback will be used to inform the work and recommendations of the its 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.
Recently, the FCC decided to continue the work of the Connect2Health Task Force, which serves as an umbrella for all the FCC’s health-related activities, with the charge of ensuring the agency has the data it needs to identify areas with limited broadband access and very high health needs.

Also See: FCC continues focus on broadband-enabled healthcare

“We’re pleased to have received such a wide range of comments from the healthcare and telecommunications sectors, consumer and disability advocacy groups as well as state and local policymakers,” said Michele Ellison, chair of the FCC’s Connect2Health Task Force, in a written statement. “Our data-gathering process is ongoing, and we hope that stakeholders will continue to engage on these critical issues to ensure the most robust record possible.”

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