As U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius wrote in the April 12th Huffington Post piece Health Equity Can't Wait, it is “a time to raise awareness about the well-documented health disparities that continue to affect racial and ethnic minorities.” One of the keys to reducing health disparities in the future is to improve access, not just traditional access to a doctor’s office, but to medical professionals through modern advances in telemedicine (the delivery of health-related services and information via telecommunications technologies) and mHealth (health care and medicine performed over mobile devices like smartphones and tablets).
We’ve all heard about the benefits of telemedicine and its impact on people’s immediate health and longer-term wellbeing. We’ve even seen television shows and commercials depicting emergency personnel using real-time telemedicine technology to save lives. The rewards of telemedicine can be great, but there is still much that needs to be done to ensure that we take full advantage of its potential.
Before the promise of telemedicine and mHealth can become a reality for all people, a robust high-speed wireless infrastructure must be in place. Currently, too many people and communities are unable to fully participate in the digital age because the essential LTE (the newest and most advanced wireless service) infrastructure isn’t yet available to them. Policies that encourage investment in wireless networks are needed to make sure that all people can benefit from modern medicine coupled with advanced communications technologies.
The widespread deployment of telemedicine-enabling technology will increase the efficiency and efficacy of health care systems designed to treat and monitor conditions like diabetes and heart disease for patients who may have difficulty attending regular doctor’s visits. This is particularly true for members of the Hispanic population, who stand to benefit tremendously from increased availability of telemedicine.
Telemedicine could help break down the factors that contribute the most to the poor health outcomes among Hispanics, including language and cultural barriers, lack of access to preventive care, and lack of health insurance. Hispanics have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group. According to the U.S. Office of Minority Health, in 2010, 30.7 percent of the Hispanic population was not covered by health insurance, as compared to 20.8 percent of African Americans and 11.7 percent of the non-Hispanic Whites.
Hispanics also have some significant health disparities that could be prevented with access to mobile telemedicine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that Hispanics suffer disproportionately from cancers, diabetes, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV/AIDS, obesity, and liver disease, many of which can be either prevented or controlled by early detection and treatment.
While existing telemedicine applications like heart rate and blood-glucose monitoring systems are already paying dividends, new and developing telemedicine solutions could offer tremendous benefits for patients, healthcare providers, and taxpayers.
In rural communities, for example, telemedicine enables medical specialists to serve people living in remote areas more readily, while electronic health records give providers an in-depth look into a patient’s medical history, enabling more coordinated and effective care.
Telemedicine will also lead to a substantial reduction in patient health-related expenditures. A study by the Center for Information Technology Leadership showed that after a five year investment, telemedicine applications could generate $4.28 billion in savings nationwide.
The FCC concurs with the above analysis and recognizes that broadband-enabled solutions will play an important role in improving healthcare for the aging and Hispanics, lowering health care costs, and expanding the number of healthcare professionals available to the infirm or those living in remote areas.
Now fast, reliable, and interactive wireless telemedicine is being deployed across the nation. As we saw at the CTIA Wireless Association’s national convention this week, all four of the major carriers are rolling out or have announced that they are going to roll out 4G LTE networks. These 4G LTE networks bring blazing fast speeds, much needed to keep up with the data demands of video conferencing with medical specialists in other cities or states, transmitting medical imagery for referrals and even monitoring our day to day health lives.
While the pace of deployment of technology capable of supporting truly powerful wireless telemedicine is proceeding at a deliberate pace right now, we need to ensure wireless networks are equipped to handle this technology in combination with other data-intensive services. We also need to ensure that high-speed wireless access is made available to as many Americans as possible to ensure every community has the opportunity to benefit from these life-changing technologies. The Obama Administration has made ubiquitous high-speed wireless broadband deployment a priority, but if this goal is to be achieved, the FCC must create an environment in which private companies are encouraged to invest in our nation’s network infrastructure.
Private sector investment can help speed access to and adoption of this life-changing technology. But it would also do much more: Wireless investment creates quality jobs and drives economic growth. For example, analysts at Deloitte Consulting recently found that U.S. industry investment in wireless infrastructure—conservatively estimated to be between $25–$53 billion during 2012–2016—could account for 371,000–771,000 new jobs and as much as $73–$151 billion in GDP growth during that same period. Other economists have produced much higher numbers from their analyses, but it is clear that private investment has the potential to create jobs and growth as it strengthens our nation’s wireless networks.
Pro-investment policies will help our country reach President Obama’s broadband goals as well as ensure greater access to opportunities, education, and quality health care for all people. It’s critical that we promote ways to expeditiously expand access to advanced wireless technology capable of supporting interactive telemedicine applications, enabling patients and doctors to speak and exchange pertinent information wirelessly from the comfort of their own homes. This saves time, energy, and money. And lives. A win-win for all Americans.
I am heartened by the tremendous capabilities and advances in telemedicine technology. Even more so, I am overwhelmed by the life-changing power of telemedicine. In my educated opinion, every effort to put telemedicine technology in the hands of more of the aging population and Hispanics is something we should strive for and support.
Dr. Rios serves as President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, (NHMA), representing Hispanic physicians in the United States. The mission of the organization is to improve the health of Hispanics. Dr. Rios also serves as President of NHMA’s National Hispanic Health Foundation affiliated with the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University, to direct educational and research activities.