FCC antes up for health network

The Federal Communications Commission dedicated more than $417 million to build 69 statewide or regional broadband telehealth networks in 42 states and three territories under the Rural Health Care Pilot Program.

The program will allow rural clinics to improve treatment and save lives by tapping the expertise of health professionals in urban medical centers, the FCC said. The agency announced the availability of the funds Nov. 19.

The telehealth networks will connect more than 6,000 public and nonprofit health providers nationwide to broadband nets, the commission said. The pilot will serve hospitals, clinics, universities, research centers, behavioral health sites, clinics in prisons and community health centers.

The networks will connect rural health centers with experts in cardiology, pediatrics, radiology and other specialties. Intensive-care unit doctors and nurses will be able to monitor critically ill patients around the clock, the commission said. Videoconferencing will allow physicians and mental health professionals to provide care for patients hundreds of miles away, the FCC said.

The planned networks are expected to boost health care efficiency, cut costs and reduce travel time for patients, the agency said. They also will reduce medical errors, help doctors share information and improve response to public health emergencies such as bioterrorism attacks or pandemic disease outbreaks, the FCC said.
Federal public health officials from the Health and Human Services Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies will be able to pitch in during emergencies via the networks, the commission said.

FCC rules for the program require participants to adopt health information technology standards set by HHS, to promote creation of a national electronic health care record system. Organizations that receive funds will be eligible to get up to 85 percent of their design and construction expenses for the nets. Participants will be allowed to connect to the public Internet or one of the nation's dedicated Internet backbones ' Internet2 or National LambdaRail ' the commission said.

Commission rules call for the projects to be competitively bid and subject to quarterly reviews, oversight and audits.

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