Updated June 2020
There is little doubt today that telemedicine use is on the rise. In spite of the growing interest, however, the budget for the FCC’s Rural Health Care (RHC) program, which provides broadband connectivity for medical providers in rural areas, had not increased since 1997.
Finally, after years of going over budget, the FCC recently took steps toward increasing the 20-year-old spending limit of $400 million. The additional funding will support the additional use of broadband among rural providers. In addition, the move may help offset the effects of the commission’s recent Net Neutrality ruling by increasing the broadband priority for rural healthcare use.
In making its notice, the FCC said, “As technology and telemedicine assume an increasingly critical role in healthcare delivery, a well-designed RHC Program is more vital than ever.”
Interest in utilizing telemedicine is growing across the board. A conducted by the American Telemedicine Association published in October 2017 showed that 22 percent of survey respondents had used telemedicine options to meet with a medical provider, while 50 percent had at least inquired about it. Even among those who had not used telemedicine, a majority indicated they thought telemedicine would be a convenience.
Studies bear out the convenience angle. According to HealthTech Magazine, “In a study conducted at the University of California Davis Health System, telemedicine visits saved upwards of 11,000 patients a total of 9 years of time and $2.8 million in travel costs. The average cost saving was $156 per patient.”
However, with the demise of rural healthcare facilities, the convenience quickly turns toward necessity for both providers and patients.
A 2017 report shows that 82 hospitals serving rural areas have closed since 2010 and hundreds more are in danger of closing. For those healthcare facilities still open, a move to telemedicine could save up to $1.3 million per year. Even more important is the human factor as people in rural areas can access telemedicine more quickly than traditional healthcare options, which allows rural communities to access care more quickly than they normally would have, saving lives.
The FCC is expected to take additional steps toward increasing spending limits for the RHC program in February 2018.