Expanding Healthcare’s Reach via Telehealth—and Federal Funding
Telehealth, with its focus on quality and integration of care, particularly in rural or isolated communities where access to healthcare is difficult, is becoming crucial to the U.S. medical system. Shortages in healthcare providers and the physical distance of patients to their potential providers emphasize the growing need for telehealth services to increase access to emergency department care, home health, specialty care, medication and treatment adherence, and intensive care monitoring. 1
For providers managing hospitals and clinics, the benefits to implementing telehealth services are clear: reductions in operational expenses, provider access to critical patient information within a secure environment, and real-time consultation with specialists over long distances. Telehealth services allow providers to comply with the ever-increasing stringency of government regulations by reducing patient readmission rates, a key measure of value-based healthcare.
As providers begin to contemplate their telehealth strategies, they should consider the following technologies:
- Storing and forwarding data, images or videos
- Remote patient monitoring
- mHealth (mobile health) applications
A prime consideration for planning the implementation of telehealth technologies should be network performance. The best way to ensure a network is up to the task? By partnering with a telecommunications provider that can consistently and securely provide broadband connectivity to support voice, video, Internet and wide area networks (WAN)—which is critical to both performance and compliance. In particular, healthcare providers need high bandwidth and availability, as well as minimal latency to deliver telehealth services to their rural populations.
As the number of hospitals and clinics serving larger, disparate communities over long distances increases, so does an urgent need to upgrade and expand their networks to support telehealth services. The federal government recognized this need, and in 2006, the Federal Communications Commission introduced the inclusion of broadband network subsidy into the existing Rural Healthcare Program managed by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
In 2012, USAC launched the Healthcare Connect Fund to support the build-out of broadband networks for eligible healthcare providers. The fund provides up to $400 million annually to eligible healthcare-related entities, including public or nonprofit hospitals; rural health clinics; community health centers; health centers serving migrants; community mental health centers; local health departments or agencies; post-secondary educational institutions, teaching hospitals and medical schools; and consortia made up of individually eligible entities. Non-rural healthcare providers may be eligible for program funding if they participate in a consortium where the majority of members are rural.
The USAC program benefits are obvious. Eligible applicants can receive a 65% discount on broadband services, equipment and connections to research and education networks, including healthcare provider-constructed and owned facilities if the applicant can show that fiber network construction is the most cost-effective option.
Services eligible for funding include:
- Cloud-based connectivity services and point-to-multipoint
- Reasonable and customary installation charges
- Lit fiber lease/dark fiber, fiber maintenance costs
- Healthcare provider-constructed and owned facilities
- Eligible equipment necessary to make broadband service functional
- Healthcare provider connections between off-site data centers and administrative offices
- Connections to research and education networks
- Upfront charges for deployment of new or upgraded facilities
More participation in the USAC program would mean more providers could utilize the technology needed to meet the demands of the rural healthcare population. Indeed, USAC is looking to increase the amount of applicants and funding commitments—and expand healthcare services available to those in underserved and unserved areas.
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