University of Mississippi Medical Center’s telehealth director says video visits won’t work without access to broadband

University of Mississippi Medical Center- Center for Telehealth
Without a reliable internet connection, telehealth will be harder to deploy to rural areas going forward. (University of Mississippi Medical Center)

Pilot projects at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Center for Telehealth have shown remote patient monitoring and video consultations can save hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but not without the necessary infrastructure.

In rural areas of the country, that means reliable access to high-speed internet, Michael Adcock, the Center’s executive director told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation during a hearing on Tuesday about Internet of Things usage in rural America.

That’s particularly true when it comes to telehealth visits that rely on video, Adcock told the committee. Although remote monitoring technology can typically function on lower broadband speeds, telehealth consultations, which will be used more frequently in the coming years, require a reliable internet connection.

“If it’s not available at the time it’s needed, it’s not going to help the patient,” he said.

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UMMC was recently designated by the Department of Health and Human Services as one of two national Telehealth Centers of Excellence based on its work to provide care to rural parts of the state. In written testimony, Adcock said the provider has tallied more than 500,000 patient encounters over the last decade, and one specific diabetes pilot showed a projected annual savings of more than $180 million.

Although he said the organization can’t use remote monitoring for just 1% of patients because of connectivity issues, the provider “will run into a lot more issues” with video visits. Adcock added that a mobile home or a house with a tin roof often interferes with a mobile signal.

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Lawmakers and several other witnesses also raised concerns about a rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission in August that would redefine broadband internet from 25 Mbps download/5 Mbps upload to 10/1 respectively—a proposal that one FCC commissioner called "crazy."

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the FCC is “playing with words” to make it look as though more people in the U.S. have high-speed internet, “as opposed to helping people get access to broadband.”

Angela Siefer, director National Digital Inclusion Alliance noted that the change is “really significant for IoT,” which will require higher speeds across the board.

“I’m not aware of anyone that is asking for that [change] specifically,” added Michael Terzich, chief administrative officer of Zebra Technologies, which manufactures IoT solutions. “Quite frankly, it’s a bit illogical given the density and the information exchange requirements on a go-forward basis.”