US makes $300 million available for telehealth initiatives

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced a $200 million programme to bring telehealth initiatives to US citizens, and an additional $100 million fund to help telcos build the networks.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed through Congress last week, $200 million will be made available for healthcare providers to purchase the necessary broadband contracts and devices to deliver telehealth services, while the separate Connected Care Pilot Program will provide up to $100 million from the Universal Service Fund (USF) to add more to the pot.

“Almost two years ago, former FCC Chairman Newt Minow and I advocated for telemedicine as ‘a critical tool for making Americans healthier’ and called for forward-thinking policies that could ‘bring our health care system more fully into the digital age’,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“Now, in the midst of the national emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic, our call has taken on serious urgency.  Connected care can help us treat coronavirus patients, enable patients with other conditions to get care while maintaining social distancing, and protect health care professionals from greater exposure.”

The concept of digital health solutions are of course in their infancy, but now would seem like an excellent time to accelerate the development and adoption of such services. The US might have been one of the latter nations to be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, but it appears the consequences are becoming much more serious.

Employment has steadily decreased over the last decade, since the largest impacts of the 2008 global recession, though coronavirus has snuck its teeth deep into the US economy and society in recent weeks.

US Unemployment as percentage of workforce (2011-2020) at February-end
Year 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Unemployment 9% 8.3% 7.7% 6.7% 5.5%
Year 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Unemployment 4.9% 4.6% 4.1% 3.8% 3.5%

Data curtesy of US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

While the Dow Jones has been showing signs of stability, down 27% since the end of February but the sharp decline has halted, the unemployment numbers are a blow. According to the new statistics, 9.95 million individuals have filed for unemployment in the US over the last two weeks. This fortnight period is higher than the previous ten months aggregated.

The figures for March will be made official by the BLS Statistics in the coming days, but with COVID-19 closing many businesses and high streets across the US, unemployment figures could return to the early part of the decade. The BLS estimates the total US workforce was over 164 million in February; 9.95 million individuals, the number who have filed for unemployment over the last two weeks, would represent 16.4% of this workforce now being unemployed.

And it will be the poorest communities which will be hit the hardest.

“I am also glad that the pilot program focuses on meeting the needs of low-income people and veterans,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “As the coronavirus pandemic continues, more and more Americans face unprecedented economic challenges.

“Just last week, a record 3.3 million American applied for unemployment benefits. More hardships are ahead. I am hopeful that this pilot program will both provide targeted assistance to communities in need as soon as possible and pave the way for a broader commitment to improving health care and connectivity for low-income people.”

The demands on the telecommunications industry over the last few weeks have been to ensure home and remote workers are able to perform their duties, but as the pandemic impacts more elements of society, the scope will have to be widened. Healthcare is an obvious area where connectivity can bolster daily life.

While the healthcare industry has been propositioned as one which would greatly benefit from improved connectivity, little progress has been made. This is a very traditional and risk-adverse industry which is resistant to change. There is little evidence of evolution of healthcare systems around the world through the last few decades, but digital transformation is seemingly being thrust on the industry.

The idea of a connected healthcare system, where doctors and other health professionals can perform duties remotely, seems like a very obvious solution. It keeps people in their homes, preventing further spread and protecting essential workers, but could also make appointments more efficient. There will be growing pains of course, but this is a very sensible and logical solution.

This is not an initiative which will bed-in overnight, the purchasing of contracts, equipment and devices will take time, but it is certainly one which the rest of the world should be watching and wondering why they haven’t implemented such a scheme.

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