WASHINGTON — While the Federal Communications Commission is not technically a healthcare entity, it is driving a key project that will ultimately facilitate the underlying infrastructure for telemedicine: broadband connectivity for rural providers.
While the road ahead is long, after a project comprising 50 pilot sites, 76 new consortia have applied for funding under the FCC’s Healthcare Connect initiative, Christianna Lewis Barnhart, acting manager of FCC’s rural healthcare program, said here at the Government Health IT Conference and Exhibition on Wednesday, adding that she is particularly excited about the momentum because it takes 6 months to form a consortia.
“Think about how 76 groups of providers have decided they’re going to work together, filled out all the forms to qualify for this program,” said Matt Quinn, director of healthcare initiatives at FCC. “This is from January until now that this happened. This is a foundation for building bigger and deeper partnerships.”
FCC Healthcare Connect’s goal is to establish wider connectivity via funds covering broadband services, necessary equipment, reasonable and customary installation up to $5,000, and connections to off-site administrative and data centers, as well as research and education networks — all with an eye on tying rural providers to larger medical specialists through telemedicine, enhancing exchange of EHRs and coordination of patient care, enabling remote training and reducing costs.
A by-product of the FCC’s work is that the infrastructure to achieve it will also pave the way for videoconferencing and other telehealth practices.
Quinn added that the broadband initiative is not limited to providers but also can be used to establish connections between rural providers and urban specialists, research centers and health information exchanges.
Another way to put that would be the widespread telehealth broadband will ultimately create large networks of care that enable patients to “get access locally when needed, regionally if more important, and globally to access world experts,” when necessary, according to Adam Darkins, MD, who heads the Veterans Affairs national telehealth programs, and also spoke at the conference.
The VA, of course, is something of a leader in delivering telemedicine services, counting approximately 4,500 clinical video endpoints, linking 150 VA medical centers, supporting 90,000 veterans in their own homes, to the tune of 202,283 clinically-coded and quantifiable video consultations in 2013 alone.
Both Darkins and Quinn acknowledged that obstacles to ubiquitous telehealth remain, notably licensure and reimbursement.
“Telemedicine, it’s coming. FCC doesn't deliver or reimburse for care and we’re not involved in licensure. We understand that once those barriers are knocked down there are going to be connections that need to be made or upgraded,” Quinn said. “Today, many networks are hub and spoke. In time, [providers] are going to make the best use of those networks for things like Big Data, analytics, telemedicine, that they aren't really structured for today.”
Quinn added that all this a pre-cursor to care models that FCC’s “partners in crime,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration are working toward.