Telehealth Pilot Program Targets Rural, Low-Income Patients

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The FCC has proposed a $100 million plan to help providers invest in telemedicine technology.

Telehealth — a suite of technologies enabling patients to receive quality medical care without leaving their homes — has the potential to transform the American healthcare system, but it has yet to reach widespread adoption. According to a survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Robert Graham Center, 85 percent of family medicine respondents had not used telemedicine in the last twelve months. 

A new initiative from the Federal Communications Commission is seeking to change that. The Connected Care Pilot program would give a substantial discount on broadband internet service to telehealth providers. If put into place, the program could spur the spread of telemedicine nationally, especially in underserved areas. 

$100 Million Investment in Telehealth Connectivity

On July 10, the FCC proposed the three-year Connected Care Pilot program, intended to support telehealth services for those who need them most. Using $100 million in funding, the program would offer an 85 percent discount on broadband internet service to qualified telemedicine providers. 

The Connected Care Pilot would specifically target providers who serve low-income patients with limited access to care, including veterans, residents of rural areas, and those living in Tribal lands. It would focus on treatment of the most pressing medical needs: opioid addiction, mental health, high-risk pregnancy, and heart disease. 

According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, “by supporting healthcare providers’ investments in telehealth, the Connected Care Pilot program could extend the patient-doctor relationship beyond the hospital and help bridge both the digital and healthcare divides.” 

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is credited with the idea for the program. “Given the significant cost savings and improved patient outcomes associated with connected care, we should align public policy in support of this movement in telehealth,” Carr said. “It’s the healthcare equivalent of moving from Blockbuster to Netflix.”

Telemedicine Poised for Rapid Growth

Telehealth promises to be a game changer for the US healthcare system. It has the potential to improve convenience for patients and reduce overhead expenses for healthcare providers. By conducting virtual appointments, some doctors and nurses could even work from home. Of course, in-person care is sometimes essential, but a significant portion of appointments can be done just as well over video. 

Moreover, telemedicine can bring healthcare to patients who currently have insufficient access. The need is especially acute in rural areas, which are facing physician shortages and hospital closures. Telehealth enables doctors living anywhere in the country to consult with patients who are in urgent need of quality care. 

Telehealth will also address issues of transportation. Patients without cars often have trouble making appointments, especially in regions with limited public transit. Elderly patients and wheelchair users can also find travel difficult. Even for those without mobility issues, the long distances between rural providers may discourage seeking care. Telehealth enables these patients to access the treatment they need without leaving home.

Despite its clear value, most patients do not yet have access to telehealth services. Cost is a major barrier, as many small, independent practices simply lack the resources to invest in the required infrastructure. That’s why the Connected Care Pilot is so significant. By drastically reducing the price of high-speed internet access, it will spur more providers to jump into this growing sector.

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