FCC's net neutrality reversal threatens telehealth, remote monitoring and data sharing

Changes to net neutrality rules will have a significant impact on health IT innovation, particularly for rural providers, according to a group of informatics and public health experts.

Under the new leadership of Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working to overturn net neutrality rules established by the Obama administration. An overhaul would allow telecommunications companies to treat some businesses more favorably than others and raise connection fees for hospitals.

That approach “threatens the well-being of many people, particularly those at risk for health disparities due to low income or rural residency,” a group of researchers from St. Louis University, the Medical University of South Carolina and Harvard University wrote in a post for Health Affairs Blog.

Responding to a request from the FCC regarding regulatory and infrastructure shortcomings limiting broadband-enabled advancements in healthcare, the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) recently said access to broadband “is, or soon will become, a social determinant of health.” Other organizations like the American Hospital Association have urged the FCC to provide more federal funding to rural providers to improve access to broadband.

RELATED: AMIA sees internet access as a social determinant of health

But undoing net neutrality regulations has specific implications for those rural healthcare providers that rely on a high-speed internet connection for critical telehealth initiatives. Increasingly, those programs are also taking advantage of remote monitoring advancements that use connected devices and sensors to feed information back to physicians.

“What happens to telehealth if Netflix traffic is preferred above medical applications?” the authors wrote. “Could internet service providers (ISPs) offer better services for one hospital system than another, helping them take over telehealth in a region? The undoing of [net neutrality] weakens the infrastructure of reliable low cost connectivity that telehealth systems depend upon.”

As more healthcare organizations are moving to the cloud, hospitals and providers also require a reliable internet connection to access and transfer patient data. The authors noted that providers in rural areas are often limited in their choice of internet providers, leaving the possibility that those organizations would see higher service fees.