Wednesday, November 13

California seeks to improve telehealth

FCC grants UC funds to develop technology to modernize rural health care systems

The University of California, along with a number of government agencies and health care providers, was issued a three-year $22 million grant by the Federal Communications Commission last Tuesday.

The UC and its partners will use the gift to improve the California Telehealth Network, which seeks to modernize the rural health care system in California by establishing contact between rural and urban clinicians.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger emphasized the importance of keeping California up-to-speed with modern medical technology in a statement last Wednesday.

“Using technology is a major component in improving patient care,” he said. “By expanding broadband networks for telemedicine, we can connect the best medical experts to clinics in remote areas of the state. It’s critical that California continues to lead the way with this technology.”

Ultimately, the UC and its partners will establish a new telecommunications infrastructure that will streamline communication between health care personnel all over California, giving rural neighborhoods access to the state-of-the-art health technology that urban residents already benefit from.

The project aspires to connect 300 rural health care providers that currently are not part of the network.

Once they are connected, these entities and the people they serve will be able to communicate and consult with other people in the network ““ specifically, experts at academic medical centers and other health care providers in the state.

Jennifer Ward, a spokesperson at the University of California Office of the President, said she applauds the effort that the UC has already put forth to improve telehealth.

“California already has a good telehealth program in place,” she said, “a program that the UC was instrumental in engineering.”

Since its first program in 1992, the UC’s telemedicine efforts have expanded greatly to include a variety of services.

Among them, the UC Davis Health System now provides video interpreting for rural residents who cannot communicate with their local health care personnel because of language barriers. It also has pediatric telecardiology and teleradiology programs in place.

Stacey Cole, an analyst for health and technology at UC Davis, says that the funding will “help bridge the gap between rural and urban health care through the use of technology.”

Officials are also using the network to strengthen emergency services and enhance disaster preparedness. In time, they plan to link California providers to a national broadband health care network.

Ward says that among its practical benefits, the improved system will also enable rural citizens to circumvent the difficulties and perils of driving long distances to access basic medical services.

The California Emerging Technology Fund and UnitedHealth Group, Inc. have pledged $8.6 million in additional funds to help implement the network, which, after serving rural communities, will expand to support the increasing numbers of California health care providers in urban and rural districts.

The grant is part of the FCC’s $417 million national initiative and supplements other recent measures to implement a statewide telehealth scheme.

Among these are Proposition 1D, an education bond which over time will endow the UC with $200 million to bolster California telemedicine, and various initiatives by Gov. Schwarzenegger to promote broadband access and popularize health information technologies.

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