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Telemedicine grows despite key challenges

29 Sep, 2009

As the debate over health care reform rages on, as the economy struggles to recover, and as more and more people continue to live without adequate access to broadband technologies, the development of technologies continues to outpace our ability to benefit from them.

Telehealth is the emerging practice of using cameras, microphones, and often robots to connect patients and doctors that are not in the same place. These systems run on high-speed and high-capacity Internet connections, which makes it difficult for those in rural areas to gain access.

The Baltimore Sun reports that UnitedHealthcare (UHC) is developing a national telehealth network to increase physician presence in underserved communities--both rural and urban.

On it's national tour, UHC recently stopped in Maryland, which already has its share of specialized telemedicine programs.

  • Johns Hopkins Medicine International has used the technology to care for its patients across the world, from Panama to Turkey.
  • Locally, The University of Maryland Medical System has developed the Perinatal Outreach Program, based in Baltimore, for high-risk pregnant women. The program connects patients all over the state to the doctors and nurses in the city.

Robyn Broomell, 35, needed the service of a specialist when she was pregnant a few years ago due to her diabetes. Broomell lives in Rising Sun, Md.--an hour away from Baltimore. But, with telehealth technologies, she did not have to make the drive.

"At first, I was kind of leery," she said. "I thought it was kind of an odd thing. But it was very convenient, and I could get used to convenience."

While telemedicine has had success in-state, how successful UHC will be in overcoming the key challenges to a national program is yet to be seen.

There are three main impediments to increased broadband saturation and the propagation of telehealth:

  • Infrastructure--Telemedicine requires both medical and communications hardware that can be difficult and expensive to implement.
  • State regulations--Many states prevent cross-state consultations. These regulations need to be addressed before nationwide acceptance of telemedicine can take place.
  • National broadband access--The challenge to develop a national broadband plan still sits before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress. But, this is undoubtedly crucial to the expansion of such technologies.

The FCC has begun to figure out how to make a national telemedicine program possible. The commission recently held a workshop to discuss the benefits and challenges to such a program. An overview of the workshop is available on the FCC's blog.

You can also watch a video of the workshop here.

Additionally, we can support measures to bring the country and our legislation up to speed with our technology. Here's how.

Robots and broadband joining forces to create new possibilities in health care (Speed Matters)

Digital tools let doctors see patients via Internet (Baltimore Sun)

Benefits: Health Care (Speed Matters)

Workshop: Health Care (Broadband.gov)

Health Care Workshop Video (FCC)

What You Can Do (Speed Matters)

Sample

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