Telehealth and the broadband problem

Telehealth and the broadband problem

By  Tony Bardo:

Telehealth has long been recognized as essential to delivering quality healthcare. The reason is simple: either the patient or doctor can’t reach the other, so they meet by communication means.

In Africa a non-profit called Medic Mobile provides the most basic patient-to-doctor care through a simple text messaging system. More sophisticated means incorporating live audio and video communication make it possible for the best doctors in the world to diagnose and treat patients without leaving their offices in California, Florida, Maine and even rural Alaska.

And diagnoses are only the beginning. As evidenced at Massachusetts’ Steward Health Care ICU, the new frontier is one where patients are monitored not from a telemetry station within the hospital but from a remote command center filled with high-tech screens and trained technicians that could be miles away and serve multiple hospitals. While critical hospital patients are sleeping in their rooms, a team of doctors miles away is remotely monitoring vital signs — and can immediately alert and engage onsite staff when a problem condition arises.

With so many emerging examples of its value, why hasn’t telehealth been fully integrated into the public healthcare ecosystem? Leaving aside the arbitrary insurance, legal and bureaucratic barriers — far beyond the scope of this article — there is unfortunately often a lack of understanding about available broadband connectivity options beyond terrestrial technologies, such as cable, DSL and fiber. In particular, based on the latest FCC data, there are over 14 Million U.S. households either unserved or underserved by terrestrial broadband — areas that aren’t just rural and remote, but in fact are ex-urban. For these people, satellite broadband is the ideal means to power affordable healthcare.

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In the last few years satellite broadband technology has dramatically altered the communications landscape, and today serves over one million subscribers nationwide—and for good reason. Unlike terrestrial technologies, which require a ground-based infrastructure of cables or at least a cell tower for connectivity, satellite broadband is ubiquitous. All that’s needed is a compact antenna with a clear view of the southern sky.  Whether at the patient or doctor end, the capital cost of customer modem/router equipment is affordable—typically under $300—and uniformly the same, independent of location.

And because signals travel over a true alternate path to terrestrial, satellite broadband is the go-to technology that government agencies leverage in the wake of disasters, such as earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes to enable first responder and emergency operations. As a recent case in point, satellite networks were up and running soon after Superstorm Sandy to support critical emergency response, and today continue to support recovery and rebuilding efforts while many terrestrial networks are still being restored.

Satellite can lower telehealth costs dramatically, but only if the healthcare community recognizes it as an affordable, high-speed and ubiquitous communications option. With more people in need of cost-effective healthcare than ever before, satellite-powered telehealth isn’t just an economic imperative, but a social one as well.