GUEST COMMENTARY: Modernized Internet policy will help shape medical industry

2014-03-31T12:17:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Modernized Internet policy will help shape medical industryBy Becky Sanders nwitimes.com
March 31, 2014 12:17 pm  • 

While many have debated how the Affordable Care Act will affect doctors and their patients, far less attention has been given to another law with far-reaching consequences for the medical profession: the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

With Congress preparing to revise the law for the first time in 18 years, lawmakers should follow the doctor’s oath and “do no harm” to the broadband networks that have revolutionized the medical field over the past two decades.

We celebrated National Doctors Day on March 30 — recognizing the great accomplishments of physicians — and now should also consider how much the medical industry has gained from the proliferation of high-speed Internet.

The role of doctors has been utterly transformed by advancements in broadband, giving medical professionals access to a wealth of medical data on patients and allowing them to easily track progress and share information to improve patient care. Widespread broadband has also spurred medical innovation, resulting in a multitude of new devices, technologies and software that help doctors better serve patients, like Electronic Health Record systems. According to Becker Hospital Review survey released in July 2013, 45.3 percent of physician practices had a fully implemented EHR and half of the physicians surveyed said their EHR system was accessible via a tablet, smartphone or a similar mobile device. The ultimate goal of EHR is to “provide patients the ability to view online, download and transmit their health information,” making health care more accessible and efficient for everyone across the country.

With more families hooked up to reliable Internet service, doctors are also able to reach patients who are farther and farther away. Virtual care is the new term being used to encompass both telehealth and telemedicine.

The three basic types or domains of virtual care include:

  • Specialists who see and manage patients remotely.
  • Mental health and other specialists who work in primary care settings.
  • Patients who access care whenever and wherever they need to, via remote monitoring devices.

Access to health care is critical for families in rural Indiana, some of whom are located hours from the nearest health facility. Nine out of 10 people in Indiana now have access to broadband speeds of 10 Mbps or higher, allowing them to get medical attention in any corner of our state.

Notwithstanding this progress, we must still look for opportunities to build on our success. Today, our country’s broadband networks — and the doctors and patients who rely on them — are at a watershed moment, as Congress prepares to update the Communications Act for the first time since 1996. Lawmakers’ decisions will shape the future of Internet technology, and it is vital that our elected officials take account of the monumental changes that have transformed digital technology and the medical field over the past 18 years.

A modern Communications Act should encourage the tremendous patient benefits and innovations that modern telecommunications can bring. Along with saving patients time and money, virtual care enables physicians and laboratories to provide wider services across rural areas, developing a broader provider base in these typically underserved communities.

Health care and communication technologies should allow for the use of tomorrow’s technologies. Children born in 1996 are now graduating high school and starting their college education. These kids were born in the age of the Internet, and are more familiar with mobile phones and tablet computers than land line phones. Most of them have never seen or heard of a rotary telephone.

Think about how much technology has revolutionized our world since 1996. Modernized laws should reflect the pace at which technology is advancing and encourage the Internet’s continued evolution and dynamic innovation.

This innovation in broadband technology has been facilitated through massive private investment. According to the Progressive Policy Institute’s most recent Investment Heroes report, the top six Internet providers invested more than $50 billion in the American economy in 2012. With smart regulations, we can build on today’s investments to make tomorrow’s health care technologies a reality.

In Indiana, more investment is needed to help all residents adopt high-speed Internet. Ensuring that everyone can adopt high-speed Internet connections will improve the availability of health services and guarantee all Hoosiers can obtain high-quality medical care, no matter where they live. Our leaders must remember how vital a role a modernized Communications Act will play in achieving this goal.

Becky Sanders is director of operations at the Indiana Rural Health Association and program director for the Upper Midwest Telehealth Resource Center. The opinions are the writer's.

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