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01 Aug 2018

Internet freedom is crucial to Alaska telemedicine

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The year-old health clinic in the Southwest Alaska village of Chevak includes modern telemedicine equipment, numerous exam rooms and a bunkroom for visiting providers. Many patients arrive on four-wheelers, as seen from the outside on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN)

The year-old health clinic in the Southwest Alaska village of Chevak includes modern telemedicine equipment, numerous exam rooms and a bunkroom for visiting providers. Many patients arrive on four-wheelers, as seen from the outside on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (Lisa Demer / ADN)

 

For residents in many rural communities, few necessities are more difficult to obtain than affordable health care. This problem is especially severe in Alaska, where health insurance premiums are the highest in the country — almost 40 percent higher than the national average, according to federal figures released last year.

 

No single solution will solve health care affordability and access, especially in small towns without easy access to a hospital. But hope is on the horizon. New telemedicine programs leverage the internet to provide patients with diagnoses and monitoring that previously were only possible at a doctor’s office.

 

These services are beginning to appear elsewhere in the U.S., so for Alaskans — and most especially for their leaders in Washington, D.C. — the challenge will be to encourage federal policies that promote this trend.

 

Three years ago in Missouri, a new hospital opened with 330 staff members and no beds. Today, health workers contact patients using high-speed internet service and two-way cameras. Patients measure vital signs with medical tools that plug into iPads. And all the data is relayed directly to the hospital for immediate diagnoses.

 

In one instance, an 80-year old rancher with a history of heart problems felt his lungs filling up and thought he was having heart failure. Before calling an ambulance for the hour-long hospital trip, he placed an urgent video call to his doctor.

 

The doctor reviewed the rancher’s vital signs and made the diagnosis: No need for an ambulance or a hospital trip. The doctor prescribed new medication and the rancher improved, without ever leaving his cattle farm.

 

Telemedicine’s benefits are almost boundless and include both mental and physical care. But to keep this progress going, federal regulation must be more encouraging.

 

Take opioid treatment. Last year, 127 Alaskans died from opioids, and 141 died in 2016. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan recently asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to expand professionals’ ability to treat opioid addiction via telemedicine. This will be especially helpful in rural communities.

 

But advances such as this will never happen without better high-speed internet service. Three years ago, the previous administration approved rules tying down internet service in complicated regulations from a 1934 rotary telephone law.

 

The harm these “Title II” rules caused in rural communities was significant and immediate. Within months, plans for better rural internet service had been cancelled or delayed in a half-dozen states. Late last year, when “Title II” rules were finally withdrawn, a CNN headline summarized the sad situation: “In rural America, building the internet for everyone has stalled.”

 

This problem is clearly being felt in Alaska, as nearly 40 percent of state residents lack high-speed internet service. Alaska also ranks 44th among the 50 states in terms of its overall internet connectivity.

 

Soon, Rep. Don Young will vote on re-imposing Title II rules on the internet. Just as in 2015, the harm from doing so will be immediate.

 

Problems will be especially severe with telemedicine services that require “prioritized” communication for proper diagnoses. Patients should not lose their ability to have real-time communication with a nurse or doctor because of an outdated federal rule from the 1930s.

 

The National Grange has spoken out repeatedly on this issue because of the impact on rural communities. We have documented these communities’ need for internet services that provide health care and education.

 

Alaska has tremendous opportunities from better internet service, especially in health care. Rep. Young should consider the negative impact that onerous regulations will have here and reject reinstating Title II.

 

Original posted 07/25/2018 on Anchorage Daily News: https://www.adn.com/opinions/2018/07/25/internet-freedom-is-crucial-to-alaska-telemedicine/

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