Nowhere is bridging the digital divide more critical than in the area of health care. Today, whether it's through remote patient monitoring or mobile health applications accessed via smartphones, tablets, or other devices, advances in broadband-enabled health technologies are allowing patients to receive care wherever they are located. These connected care services can lead to better health outcomes and significant cost savings for patients and health care providers alike.
However, many low-income consumers, particularly those living in rural areas, lack access to affordable broadband and might not be able to realize these benefits. "While the benefits of digital health care are clear, we've been too slow to embrace its potential," wrote FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and former Kennedy-Administration FCC Chairman Newt Minow in the Boston Globe. This is why Chairman Pai has made this a core part of his work at the FCC and has led the agency toward addressing this challenge in a number of ways.
|"Technologies that are available right now can dramatically improve the quality of healthcare for millions of Americans. Getting everybody connected and promoting adoption of current tools by both doctors and patients would be a game-changer." – FCC Chairman Pai|
Connecting to Health Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The FCC has implemented a number of initiatives to help keep Americans connected to critical health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- COVID-19 Telehealth Program: The FCC established a $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program to help health care providers provide connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations in response to the pandemic. The program provides immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services. Since the beginning of the program, the agency approved 539 funding applications in 47 states plus Washington, D.C. and Guam for a total of $200 million in funding—the amount of money provided by Congress in the CARES Act. To learn more and to view a list of approved applicants, visit fcc.gov/covid19telehealth.
- Supporting Telehealth by Waiving Gift Rules: The FCC waived gift rules in the Rural Health Care programs to make it easier for broadband providers to support telehealth during the pandemic. The waiver will allow healthcare providers to accept improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other equipment or services to support doctors and patients during the coronavirus outbreak.
- Increasing Rural Health Care Funding: The FCC adopted an Order to fully fund all eligible Rural Health Care Program services for the current funding year with an additional $42.19 million. This action will help ensure that healthcare providers have the resources they need to promote telehealth solutions for patients during this outbreak. In addition, a June 30 Public Notice announced that up to $197.98 Million in unused funds from prior funding years will be available for Funding Year 2020.
- Grant Healthcare Waiver Requests: The FCC has granted waivers to GE Healthcare, to expedite medical equipment such as wearable patient monitors, diagnostic testing systems, and portable x-rays from new suppliers during the pandemic, and to MIT to permit certification and marketing of the WiTrack system for remote patient monitoring.
Support for Telehealth
Ensuring that rural health care providers have access to broadband and telephone service at rates comparable to those paid by urban providers is a core mission of the FCC. The agency is also looking for new ways to boost telehealth efforts and maintains a dedicated team focused exclusively on connectivity and health care.
- Rural Health Care Program: In August 2019, the FCC adopted a Report and Order to strengthen its Rural Health Care Program by increasing transparency, predictability, and efficiency of program funding decisions. This action took a number of steps to reform the distribution of RHC funding, in particular by revising the rules governing the Telecom Program to simplify calculation of the urban rate—the amount health care providers pay—and the rural rate—the amount that service providers receive. This followed a significant budgetary boost in 2018 to help meet the growing demand for rural telehealth services.
- Connected Care Pilot Program: On March 30, 2020, the Chairman presented final rules to stand up a broader, longer-term Connected Care Pilot Program. It would study how connected care could be a permanent part of the Universal Service Fund by making available up to $100 million of universal service support over three years to help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing telehealth services to patients at their homes or mobile locations, with an emphasis on providing those services to low-income Americans and veterans.
- Rural Telehealth Initiative: In August 2020, the FCC, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Agriculture signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together on the Rural Telehealth Initiative, a joint effort to collaborate and share information to address health disparities, resolve service provider challenges, and promote broadband services and technology to rural areas in America. As part of this MOU, the agencies intend to establish an interagency Rural Telehealth Initiative Task Force comprised of representatives from each agency. This Task Force will regularly meet to consider future recommendations or guidelines for this effort and exchange agency expertise, scientific and technical information, data, and publications.
- Connect2HealthFCC Task Force: The Connect2HealthFCC Task Force is exploring the intersection of broadband, advanced technology and health, engaging with a wide array of stakeholders, and further charting the broadband future of health care—serving as an umbrella for all FCC health-oriented activities to help enable a healthier America. Among its projects, the Task Force has led the Commission's work on Mapping Broadband Health in America, a first-of-its-kind platform allowing users to interactively visualize, overlay and analyze broadband and health data at the national, state, and county levels, and enabling detailed study of the intersection between connectivity and health.
- Wireless Medical Telemetry: Monitoring patients at a distance relies on wireless technology. The FCC, in its role of ensuring the best use of America’s wireless airwaves, ensures that these vital health services have access to the spectrum needed to avoid interference. This protects the operations of life-saving devices like those that measure patients' vital signs or transport the data via a radio link to another location within a health care facility, like a nurses' station equipped with a specialized radio receiver.
- Enforcement: The FCC proposed an $18.7 million fine for apparent violations of the FCC's competitive bidding rules for the Rural Health Care Program and for using forged, false, misleading, and unsubstantiated documents to improperly seek funding from the Universal Service Fund.
Engagement & Partnerships
The FCC is actively engaging with the broader health care community, including providers, innovators, researchers, patients and caregivers, to find ways to help connect more Americans to life-saving services.
- Remote Health Care for Veterans – Chairman Pai has personally visited numerous health facilities serving veterans living in rural areas. He visited the Providence VA Medical Center where he heard how telehealth is providing veterans across the country with access to treatment for conditions like PTSD and allowing dermatologists to save lives through quicker, more accurate diagnoses. He visited the Lecanto Community Based Outpatient Clinic, which is using the Internet and telehealth innovations to improve the lives of veterans in North Florida. And he visited the VA TeleMental Hub in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the team demonstrated their telemental health video platform and introduced him over video to a patient in Paradise, Texas, who credited the Utah VA unit with helping him lose 80 pounds and get off blood pressure medication for the first time in 15 years.
- Telehealth Hubs – Chairman Pai visited the Cleveland Clinic, which is using telemedicine to dramatically shorten the time it takes to assess and stabilize stroke patients. He visited St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado to learn how it utilizes a telehealth van equipped with diagnostic equipment and a video screen to talk to doctors or relay test results directly to the hospital. And he visited Mirasol Family Health Clinic in Hermiston, Oregon with House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden to talk about the benefits of telehealth.
- Broadband and Cancer Collaboration for Appalachia – Led by its Connect2HealthFCC Task Force, the FCC is also working with the National Cancer Institute, University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, and other stakeholders to study how increased connectivity in Appalachia can help address the burden of symptom management for cancer patients in rural and underserved areas.
September 3, 2020 - News Release
FCC Provides Information, Guidance on Connected Care Pilot Program
September 1, 2020 - News Release
FCC, HHS, and USDA Team Up for Rural Telehealth Initiative
July 8, 2020 - News Release
FCC Approves Final Set of COVID-19 Telehealth Program Applications
June 30, 2020 - News Release
FCC Announces Increase in Rural Health Care Program Funds for FY 2020
June 10, 2020 - News Release
FCC Surpasses $100 Million in Approved COVID-19 Telehealth Program Applications
March 31, 2020 - News Release
FCC Fights COVID-19 with $200M; Adopts Long-Term Connected Care Study
August 1, 2019 - News Release
FCC Strengthens Rural Health Care Program
July 10, 2019 - News Release
FCC Proposes $100 Million Connected Care Pilot Telehealth Program
June 19, 2019 - News Release
Carr Advances $100 Million Telehealth Initiative at Appalachia Event
December 6, 2018 - Speech
Chairman Pai Remarks at VA Telehealth Summit
October 18, 2018 - Speech
Chairman Pai Discusses FCC's Telehealth Work at Boston Conference