People

At the intersection of broadband connectivity, health care


By Shanley Pierce | May 20, 2016

In collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission and presented by the Connect2HealthFCC (C2HFCC) Task Force, the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center co-hosted last Wednesday a policy conference on “Broadband Prescriptions for Mental Health.”

More than 100 health care professionals, mental health researchers, faculty members and industry and community leaders attended the full-day conference that included presentations, expert panels and product demonstrations.

While the FCC is not typically a government organization that is spoken of in the same breath as health care, the C2HFCC’s Beyond the Beltway Series aims to bridge the historically disparate topics of broadband connectivity and health-related issues. The series examines the ways communities across the nation are utilizing broadband technologies and communication tools to improve health care access against the backdrop of a variety of socioeconomic statuses and geographical locations. Since the series’ inception in March 2014, spearheaded by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the Task Force has traveled to five other states—Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, Ohio and Michigan—to explore how people are leveraging broadband technology to advance health care, what challenges people are facing and what the FCC and regulators can do to impact these problem areas.

“I think conversations like these really help. We all need to have resets and recalibrations and get re-challenged to exactly what the issues are, because we get comfortable in our norms. We are very satisfied with what we experience and what is defined as normal, even when the consequences are abnormal and dysfunctional,” co-host and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said.

“Having 35 million people with no prospects of connectivity […] is unacceptable. Having millions more being unable to afford, that’s unacceptable. Having up to […] 56 million with disabilities not even beginning to afford what could propel all of us to the next level, this is unacceptable,” Clyburn added. “I just do not believe […] that the norm that is not working for every single American is acceptable. I refuse to believe we can’t solve it.”

Whereas in previous cities the FCC discussed veterans’ issues, senior citizen care and health innovations, the federal agency’s Houston conference focused primarily on expanding broadband connectivity to close the gaps in the mental health care system and to eliminate the digital divide that prevents underserved and underrepresented communities in rural areas from accessing important online information, resources, tools and support.

“These are really different worlds. A lot of the [people] in broadband, cable and things like that are not thinking about health care, and a lot of the health care folks are over there saying, ‘We wish we had better broadband,’” said Allison N. Winnike, the conference’s organizer and director of research at the University of Houston Law Center Health Law and Policy Institute. “For me, that was one of the best parts of the conference, bringing all of these folks together, talking about a common issue and really coming up with solutions.”

With the ubiquitous use of technology in the 21st century, many innovators are developing new ways to integrate broadband connectivity to drive telehealth and telemedicine delivery and access.

David Persse, M.D., physician director of emergency medical services for the Houston Fire Department, demonstrated at the event HFD’s Emergency Tele-Health and Navigation Project, or ETHAN for short, that allows first responders to connect patients with a physician, via video chat on a tablet, who can then immediately provide medical assessments. This telemedicine approach, which has shown to be effective in addressing the increase in emergency calls as a result of the city’s growing population, ultimately minimizes unnecessary emergency room visits and provides patients with immediate lifesaving diagnoses.

Similarly, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)’s Stephanie Parker and her team showcased the nation’s first mobile stroke unit, developed in 2014. Working in conjunction with HFD, the MSU ambulance is equipped with a telemedicine physician, along with a computed tomography (CT) scanner for quick, on-the-spot stroke diagnoses.

Additionally, Thomas Tsang, M.D., chief operating officer and co-founder of Valera Health, one of the startups in the TMCx Accelerator’s 2016 digital health cohort, presented his telehealth solution for mental wellness in the form of a smartphone-based tool that provides personalized patient support, remote monitoring and assessments.

“Technology will make us better at what we are proficient or good at. If we are better or proficient at perpetuating divides, then the divides will get bigger. If we want to be better at building, bridging and improving connectivity, we will do that and we will do it soon,” Clyburn said.

“We have an ongoing commitment to supporting innovation in health, and we want to ensure that connectivity is a reality in all of our communities,” she said. “We have no desire to stifle innovation, and we will prove that each and every day with proactive and forward-moving innovation and regulatory policy, but none of this will happen if we do not work together to solve any existing policy or regulatory bottlenecks that we currently have.”

The conference served as a welcomed convergence of policymakers, regulators, entrepreneurs and researchers to discuss ways in which people can move the needle on mental health care and technology.

“We’re not here just to talk with other professors,” Winnike said. “We’re here to talk to the people who live in the community and the people who are out there working on a daily basis on health care. To me, it’s all about a conversation. I don’t want to come up there and lecture about stuff. I want to be able to have a conversation with folks and hear what’s going on out on the front lines, so that we can come back […] and try to improve for the future.”




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