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Tech Industry

Ushering in "telemedicine"

Dr. David Charles says the creation of more high-speed data capacity will help millions of people realize breakthrough benefits from this confluence of technology and medicine.

Imagine a woman in a rural community that's too small to have a first-class breast clinic, having her mammography results analyzed instantly by cancer experts at a national cancer institute like New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

In the near future I may be able to "visit" a patient and adjust his or her brain-stimulating device over a high-speed Internet connection.
Think of the cost savings if patients with chronic conditions--which account for 79 percent of health care spending today--could be monitored with digital connections that instantly alert their doctors to a problem.

What if two-way broadband connections could allow physicians to conduct the virtual equivalent of an office visit examination by monitoring a patient's EKG, blood pressure and other vital signs and talking with the patient while he or she rested comfortably at home, observed by the physician through a video connection to the doctor's computer screen?

This is not Buck Rogers future gazing. "Telemedicine" applications like this are being performed right now, but they are rare because getting the broadband connections means expensive private-line connections and costly equipment.

I never thought I would see a prescription for high-quality, accessible health care written in the form of a merger proposal between two communications companies, but the proposed merger of satellite TV carriers EchoStar Communications and DirecTV is exactly that.

The combined broadcast spectrum of these two companies would allow the merged company to deliver the high-speed data capacity known as broadband via satellite to every home, hospital and doctor's office in America. This widespread ability of broadband would finally make the promise of telemedicine available to millions of Americans.

Just what is telemedicine?

It is the use of voice, data and video connections to link patients with medical services they need, even if the providers of those services are hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

My own work involves implanting in the body a device that delivers a small electrical impulse in the brain to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. In the near future I may be able to "visit" a patient and adjust his or her brain-stimulating device over a high-speed Internet connection. But the lack of widespread, affordable broadband connections, particularly in rural areas, is a serious stumbling block, even though telemedicine applications have proved dramatically effective where they've been tried.

Any home anywhere in America with one of those pizza-size satellite dishes could become an extension of a teaching hospital or specialist's office hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
This standoff between the potential benefits of telemedicine and the lack of broadband connections could end quickly if the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice were to give their respective blessings to the EchoStar-DirecTV merger.

Any home anywhere in America with one of those pizza-size satellite dishes could become an extension of a teaching hospital or specialist's office hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Small-town doctors or rural health clinics could reach out to physicians anywhere in the country to examine their patients or evaluate lab results.

Unlike so many other problems in health care, this one has a simple solution. All the government has to do is take a page from the physician's Hippocratic Oath, which says, "First, do no harm."

In other words, the FCC and the Justice Department shouldn't block this free-market solution to a public health problem. Denying Americans the benefits of improved telemedicine would be inexcusable when the capacity to increase those benefits is before us now.