Feature | February 20, 2008

Feds Helping Boost Technology in Rural America Via Telemedicine

Feds Helping Boost Technology in Rural America Via Telemedicine

The primary purpose of advancing healthcare technology is to bring better care to patients. Under a new high-tech program sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, advanced critical care help may just be click away, regardless if a hospital or clinic is in the remote far flung hinterlands of the vast American interior.

This past November the FCC dedicated more than $417 million for the construction of 69 state and regional broadband, telehealth, Internet-based networks under the Rural Health Care Pilot Program (RHCPP). The networks will significantly increase access to acute, primary and preventive healthcare in rural America by using advanced communications technology to tap the expertise of modern urban medical centers.

The RHCPP will connect more than 6,000 public and nonprofit healthcare providers nationwide to provide patients in rural areas with remote access to critically needed medical specialists in a variety of practices, including cardiology, pediatrics and radiology. Intensive care doctors and nurses will be able to monitor critically ill patients around the clock and video conferencing will allow specialists and mental health professionals to care for patients hundreds of miles away.

The FCC says the new networks will deliver services efficiently, reduce costs and travel time for consumers, decrease medical errors, and enable healthcare providers to share critical information. The system will also allow for rapid and coordinated responses to public health emergencies, such as bioterrorism attacks, pandemics or disease-related outbreaks.

The new networks will require most participants to implement health information technology standards as part of a goal to create a national system to support patients' electronic health records. The network will be one of the long anticipated benefits for those healthcare facilities that already made the transition from paper to EHRs.

The FCC says RHCPP participants will be eligible for universal service funding to support up to 85 percent of the costs associated with the design, engineering and construction of their broadband healthcare networks. The FCC hopes this pilot program will become the foundation of an eventual nationwide, interoperable health information technology infrastructure to improve the quality of healthcare.

This system is similar to the eICU programs several hospital systems across the country have already created using private funding, including Via Christi Health System in Kansas, which is highlighted in the bedside monitoring story in this issue’s Special Report. For some the future is already here.

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