By Melanie Campbell, President and CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation & Convener, Black Women’ s Roundtable
If someone you know has ever had laser or ultrasound eye surgery, then thank Dr. Patricia Bath. Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Bath patented the Laserphaco Probe, a laser eye treatment she created after years of research, and, in doing so, she became the first female African-American doctor to patent a medical device. Advances in digital health are changing our lives for the better and empowering us all to make better informed decisions and live healthier lifestyles.
April is National Minority Health Month. With the health and quality of life challenges facing the minority community, this is a great opportunity to reflect on the technological and medical advances that are transforming healthcare, offering the promise of more affordable and accessible medical options and the advantages of patient-centered care.
As Dr. Bath’s work shows, medical research never stops. Every great invention begs the question, “How can this be done better?” So, imagine Dr. Bath’s laser cataract machine linked with a high-speed broadband Internet connection and controlled by an expert physician in a teaching hospital 400 miles away.
This is an example of telemedicine — high quality medical diagnosis, care and treatment provided over high speed advanced broadband networks. These high-speed broadband networks are driving innovative healthcare advances and making quality medical care more accessible and affordable to patients.
This month, The Washington Post highlighted the promise of this telemedicine trend, noting, “Although telemedicine has been practiced for decades, a burst of innovation in recent years has greatly improved its quality.”
For many minority communities, which have long suffered from a lack of affordable and accessible healthcare, this promise is breathtaking: Stethoscopes with microphones can allow a physician hundreds of miles away to carefully listen to your child’s lungs and heart and provide a medical assessment. Cardiologists on videoconference can watch echocardiograms and MRIs and make instant diagnoses, even as they speak with patients and keep them updated during the evaluation.
The same broadband-enabled benefits can also occur from linking high-speed connections with simpler devices such as, home heart, diabetes and blood pressure monitors. With these innovative broadband applications and services, the elderly or disabled can now remain in the comfort and familiarity of their own homes and may not need nursing home care or long trips to a hospital. Home-based health systems, linked by high speed broadband to an on-call professional, can monitor medical conditions in real time and can provide alerts to healthcare practitioners within seconds if there’s a problem.
In 20 or 30 years, when we look back on today, we may realize that the most important medical enabler of the last generation is, ironically, high-speed broadband networks. After all, the doctor monitoring your heart and asking you questions during an online evaluation can’t do that using an old voice-centric telephone line. The broadband connection has to be robust and dynamic, capable of carrying the data-intensive traffic to and from patients and their doctors or healthcare specialists.
As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said to a civil rights conference in Memphis, TN, “Access to broadband means access to better education, healthcare, job opportunities, news and information.” Policies affecting access to America’s communications revolution will have an immense role in the future of affordable healthcare.
That’s why telemedicine, including the potential for more accessible and affordable care, depends on the nationwide build out of high-speed broadband networks. Outgoing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski summed up the potential for a health care digital revolution when he stated last June at an FCC mHealth Summit that online medical advances can reduce an elderly person’s healthcare costs by 25%.
Make no mistake – America’s deployment of high-speed broadband networks and infrastructure is one of the most important economic and social issues we face. It will require tens of billions of dollars in new long-term investment to bring broadband to more Americans, especially to those in underserved areas. The key to accelerating high speed broadband deployment is establishing a 21st century approach to regulation that encourages investment in 21st century technologies.
If policymakers can create a regulatory framework for broadband that applies the rules equally to all, then companies will have the business certainty to compete and speed the deployment of broadband networks to every corner of the country. More broadband networks can mean more access to more affordable medical care for all.
Who knows? Maybe high speed broadband will be the tool that inspires the next Dr. Bath to invent or create the next great medical technology, service or device. And, with greater broadband access, more Americans will be able to experience the life-changing benefits of these medical advancements and breakthroughs.