FCC announces creation of telehealth initiative

The FCC is moving into the healthcare arena. Chairman Kevin Martin last week announced a plan for a $400 million effort to expand treatment access for Americans in rural and impoverished areas via high-speed Internet services.

The expansion of long-distance healthcare, known as telehealth, will help lay the foundation for the nationwide exchange of e-health records, according to experts. The president has set a goal of ensuring that most Americans have access to e-health records by 2014.

The FCC's plan will fund dedicated broadband networks for telehealth activities, like videoconference consultations or second opinions from out-of-state specialists. Telemedicine is intended to cuts costs, travel time and medical errors, especially for people in remote or poverty-stricken regions of the country.

"With this pilot program, the commission will be taking a major step toward the goal of connecting healthcare facilities across the nation with one another through broadband telehealth networks for the benefit of patients," Martin said.

The plan rests on leveraging existing telehealth networks to build new, more comprehensive systems. Rural providers, nonprofit facilities and county-run institutions that want to participate can obtain funding for up to 85 percent of design, construction and operational expenses.

For-profit entities also can join the new networks but will have to pay their fair share of the costs. The set-up allows larger urban trauma centers and teaching hospitals to serve as telemedicine hubs for smaller, rural hospitals and economically strained facilities.

The money will come from the universal service fund, which pools telecommunications fees to support Internet connectivity for rural and low-income citizens, schools, libraries and hospitals.

On Monday, American Telemedicine Association Executive Director Jonathan Linkous called the initiative "a great step forward." He said the significance is that the program is focused on building relationships among institutions rather than just creating artificial new connection points.

The concept "fosters the idea of these networks talking among themselves so we end up having a network of networks," Linkous said, adding that about 200 telemedicine networks nationwide currently link to about 3,500 sites.

Ronald Merrell, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in telemedicine, noted that the size of the FCC telehealth contribution is "the kind of encouragement that will make health truly portable for a population that is highly mobile."

Providers tend to work behind firewalls that make their e-health records useless when it comes to sharing among health facilities, he said. "This FCC proposal would call for interoperability that would be truly effective to move patient data quickly and effectively wherever the patient needs the information."

Charles Doarn, executive director of the Center for Surgical Innovation at the University of Cincinnati, said that in expanding healthcare access via the Internet, "it is always the last mile that is the challenge." The FCC sum is an "excellent first step," he said, but success ultimately will depend on the quality of service and sustainability.

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