Industry Voices—A healthy America is a connected America

Telemedicine doctor
From stroke care to emergency care, telemedicine offers huge potential, but only if the connectivity is there. (shironosov/Getty)

Telemedicine is one of the key opportunities for telecommunications technology to change lives for the better. Thankfully, advances in the ability to diagnose and treat patients remotely using high-speed broadband connections are coming at a crucial time in American medicine.

With increasing shortages of skilled physicians and technicians in many American communities, the ability to use remote connections can be the difference between life and death.

People often focus on telemedicine as a vital way to extend excellent healthcare into rural America. The need is great; more than 120 rural hospitals have closed since 2005 alone. But telemedicine has strong applications for everyone, including promoting a healthier lifestyle for urban citizens.

For instance, telemedicine is now emerging even earlier in acute care interventions—notably by enabling connections between emergency response workers in ambulances and the physicians who will treat patients when they arrive at a hospital. Pushing advanced medical care in this way directly into the ambulance saves lives and helps doctors and hospitals better prepare for incoming patients. And this technology can be deployed for as little as about $2,000 per ambulance, demonstrating that telemedicine does not have to be expensive.

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In fact, given the high costs of emergency room and hospital care, even one successful intervention using this technology can generate considerable savings for the healthcare system as a whole.

RELATED: Telehealth can cut down in-person visits in the short term. Its long-term benefits remain murky

Or consider telestroke programs, offering real-time information on a patient's neurological status. The first few minutes after a stroke have a vital impact on the patient outcome. Restoring neurological function as quickly as possible not only saves lives, but it also determines the ultimate quality of life for the patient.

Small innovations can make a huge difference in people's lives. A new technology permits patients with Type 2 diabetes to stand on a bathmat for 20 seconds and send information to physicians that can detect foot ulcers five weeks in advance, keeping patients out of wheelchairs and on their own feet. Another tool helps predict diabetic retinopathy, which can actually save eyesight.

We live in a time when Type 2 diabetes is a driver of poor health outcomes. Inventors have looked to high-speed internet to create a pathway to make this devastating disease manageable. The result will save lives, money, and human capital. 
This—and more—is what greater use of broadband-enabled digital medicine can do.

RELATED: Medicare’s telehealth utilization nudges upward, but overall rates still hamstrung by payment policies

By 2030, 75 million Americans will be over the age of 65. Sadly, many will see declining personal mobility as they advance in age. Telemedicine can restore some of that mobility and deliver the promise of high-quality healthcare wherever there is high-speed broadband. 

But these connections will need to be upgraded. The next generations of telemedicine will be supported by the upcoming deployment of 5G wireless technology, which will start this year. Only 5G, with its far faster speeds and sharply increased reliability, will enable the kinds of connected devices that will make the next advances in remote medical intervention possible. While 4G wireless technology can support up to 2,000 connected devices per square kilometer, 5G can support up to 2,000,000. Thus, there will be plenty of bandwidth for telemedicine, connected cars, and other innovations—all the more reason the deployments should happen quickly.

So, to the degree the wireless upgrade process goes more smoothly, with regulatory barriers reduced, the sooner Americans, including those living in cities, will be able to enjoy the benefits of innovation in telemedicine. Best of all, everyone will benefit from the connection to improved healthcare.

Kim Keenan is co-chair of the D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA).

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