Panel eyes ways to enhance hospital communications

A diverse advisory committee representing the technology sector, healthcare community and all levels of government met Wednesday to hear from each other and outside officials on efforts to ensure that medical facilities can communicate with each other during disasters.

The Commerce Department and FCC established the Joint Advisory Committee on Communications Capabilities of Emergency Medical and Public Health Care Facilities, which first convened last month. It was created following the enactment earlier this year of legislation implementing the remaining recommendations of the commission that investigated the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The committee must report its findings to the Senate Commerce Committee by Feb. 4.

Kevin McGinnis, the program adviser for the National Association of State EMS Officials and chairman of the committee's emergency medical workgroup, shared a few draft recommendations at Wednesday's session. They included creating a federal interagency committee on emergency communications and funding a study on emergency bandwidth requirements.

The study also would look at geographical factors that influence emergency communications, such as network overloads in urban areas.

Jonathan Linkous, executive director of the American Telemedicine Association and chairman of the public health workgroup, told the joint committee that there are many emergency systems in place, but the landscape is somewhat duplicative "and it's certainly not integrated."

Key to coordinating efforts, he said, is adopting a regional approach.

Also, electronic patient records are integral to communications capabilities, Linkous said. "Clearly, bed-tracking systems, bed-inventory systems are really critical," he said. National standards are starting to be implemented, Linkous added, "but the progress has been agonizingly slow."

The newly minted Office of Emergency Communications, part of the Homeland Security Department, presented the committee with a breakdown of its work involving the healthcare arena, including a forthcoming national emergency communications plan.

"We look at it as setting the agenda for the future," said Keith Young, who works for Homeland Security's new office.

The committee had many questions following a briefing on the FCC's recently announced initiative to spend $400 million on expanding treatment access to rural and impoverished areas via high-speed Internet services.

Long-distance healthcare, known as telehealth, employs videoconferencing and other means of exchanging patient data and images to aid those in remote locations. The FCC aims to leverage existing telehealth networks to build new, more comprehensive systems.

Committee member Terry Ebberts, director of the New Orleans homeland security and public-safety office, voiced concerns that the government was going to "respend" millions of dollars on nationwide communications towers and repeaters that already have been built by other federal entities, like Homeland Security.

Jake Jennings from the FCC responded that healthcare providers who apply to participate have to indicate their existing capacities on their forms to avoid redundancy. The program is aimed at connecting providers to each other, he stressed.

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