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Patients Need Strong Broadband for mHealth, Telehealth Access

AHA and AMIA advocate for rural patients to get better mHealth and telehealth access.

Rural areas need better broadband to support patient mHealth and telehealth access.

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The AHA and the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to make changes to the Rural Health Care (RHC) plan to improve broadband services in rural regions. This will make mHealth and telehealth access more readily available for rural patients, the two groups contended.

“Telehealth connects patients to vital health services though videoconferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consults and wireless communications,” wrote AHA Senior Vice President of Public Policy Analysis and Development Ashley Thompson said.

“Mobile health leverages consumer devices such as smartphones, allowing health care to travel with the patient and clinician,” Thompson added. “Mobile health apps enable better patient-provider communications, encourage better patient self-management and health literacy, and promote changes in health and lifestyle.”

Telehealth specifically breaks down geographic barriers to healthcare, which plague many patients in rural areas. Telehealth brings a new meaning to convenient patient care by allowing patients to connect with their clinicians via a video conference, Thompson explained.

However, broadband isn’t fast enough for many patients in rural areas. Rural patients are perhaps the population who benefits the most from telehealth access, but these patients cannot access internet speeds necessary to facilitate a meaningful telehealth encounter.

“Thus, despite increasing adoption of telehealth and rising participation in the RHC Program, there remains much work to be done to digitally integrate the more geographically isolated populations of our nation,” Thompson asserted.

The RHC program’s Healthcare Connect Fund does essential work to offer broadband access to rural telehealth providers, but the program needs more funding to overcome barriers keeping telehealth from reaching its potential, Thompson explained.

“The AHA urges the Commission to implement several changes to the HCF that will lead to greater program participation, further expansion of broadband connectivity, and ultimately, improved health outcomes for rural Americans,” Thompson stated.

Specifically, AHA suggested the FCC do the following:

  • Increase the overall funding of the program to meet growing demand from health care providers;
  • Raise the HCF discount percentage from 65 percent to 85 percent;
  • Allow some funding for consortium administrative expenses;
  • Streamline program administration;
  • Consider making remote patient monitoring an eligible expense; and
  • Reconsider the definition of rural used by the FCC to be more inclusive

AMIA likewise noted the importance of addressing the social determinants of health using telehealth technology.

“Vulnerable groups face specific challenges related to inadequate access to affordable and consistent high-speed Internet,” wrote AMIA President and CEO Douglas B. Fridsma, MD, PhD, FACP, FACMI.

“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,” Fridsma continued. “These groups would benefit from an environment that would foster a low-cost broadband option with access that would be open and as ubiquitous as possible.”

The FCC should use broadband and mHealth technology as a means to address these unique demographic healthcare barriers, and also to assist patients where they need more help, Fridsma said.

Specifically, AMIA called on the FCC to do the following:

  • Partner with federal and state/local agencies to leverage broadband-enabled health solutions and technologies against the opioid epidemic;
  • Align 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;
  • Examine other agency sources of administrative data, such as CMS, ONC and CDC, among others, to assess broadband-enabled health solutions capacity and needs; and
  • Leverage the work done by the National Institutes of Standards & Technology’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, also known as NSTIC, to ameliorate privacy and security concerns in accessing healthcare-related information via public broadband.

“AMIA believes that access to broadband is, or soon will be recognized as, a social determinant of health,” Fridsma concluded. “FCC has a critical role in ensuring that Americans benefit from the electronic health infrastructure that was initiated with the passage of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, and supported by the 21st Century Cures Act.”

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