Access to telemedicine still lacking where it’s needed most
September 2015

With mobile technology becoming increasingly advanced, it’s not surprising that our smartphones and tablets are powering more robust user experiences. Telemedicine is among the latest advents that would have been impossible five to 10 years ago without today’s technology.

Thanks to our always-on, always-connected world, health care professionals can do increasingly more without having to actually meet with us. For patients, this means being able to receive care from a general practitioner or even a specialist from anywhere.

“Wireless technology provides an important access point for patients and health care providers, especially for conditions that require lifestyle changes and constant monitoring,” said Jackie McCarthy, director of wireless Internet development for CTIA-The Wireless Association. “The use of mobile devices by patients to track their symptoms helps the patient and the provider communicate more effectively on how their symptoms and conditions are progressing and being managed.” 

If you live in a major metropolitan area or suburb, the utility of telemedicine may not be immediately apparent. It’s easy enough, after all, to simply drive or take a bus to your local doctor. But for people living in rural areas or cities lacking robust mass transit, telemedicine might offer the only means of access to critical medical services.

“The trend of patients and health care providers using mobile devices to track conditions, monitor symptoms and communicate helps to address gaps in health care infrastructure, such as long distances between patients and health care providers, or a shortage of providers in a rural area,” McCarthy said.

Connectivity lacking in rural areas

It’s a cruel irony then that the rural communities that stand to benefit most from telemedicine are often the same ones that lack the broadband infrastructure required to use it in the first place.

“A lot of us who live in urban or suburban areas take it for granted because we have wired and wireless high-speed access, but in rural areas we still find that there are profound broadband access issues,” said Eric Brown, president and CEO of the California Telehealth Network. “It only takes a visit into one of these small rural communities to find out that very often there is no broadband access, and that is still a huge issue.”

An estimated 55 million Americans do not have access to broadband speed Internet access. More than half of these people live in rural areas, according to the FCC’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report.

“There are a lot of places where access to both health care facilities and wireless infrastructure is lacking, and these areas are where the wireless carriers are focusing a lot of resources on improving coverage and capacity,” McCarthy said. “Things like the availability of spectrum and physical wireless infrastructure like towers and antennas in rural areas are necessary to ensure these trends continue to grow.”

High-speed Internet is a key requisite for powering the fundamentals of telemedicine. Without it, health care providers can’t provide live video consultations, transmit imaging information, such as MRIs and X-rays, or ensure that patient information is adequately secured.  

Fortunately, Brown, McCarthy and others in the wireless and health care industries are working hard to bring broadband infrastructure to areas in need. In communities with no commercial provider, a variety of state and federal programs exist to fund the construction of new facilities. 

So the next time you need a doctor, remember that there just may be an app for that.    

By Dmitry Sheynin