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Smith: Improving rural health care through broadband, bringing doctors to their patients

Lost in the political squabbling surrounding the Affordable Care Act is the extraordinary work of our nation’s doctors. For generations, they have been the backbone of our health care system — from those doctors of a bygone era who made house calls to the cutting-edge medical specialists of today.

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Many factors have contributed to the evolution of the physician’s role in our society. But perhaps none have had the potential as the explosion in medical technologies that have been spurred by the Internet as it reshapes the delivery of health care in the U.S.

Now, as we have just passed the 24th anniversary of National Doctor’s Day, we are at a critical moment. It is by no means a given that we will continue to make the kind of technological strides that have brought us to this point. To spur further innovation in the medical field, state and federal officials should focus on smart policies that extend the reach and adoption of broadband services.

The technology behind medicine has evolved drastically, allowing today’s medical professionals to treat and prevent disease and conditions that plagued earlier generations. Broadband Internet greatly enhances this knowledge transfer, enabling doctors to share information across the world with a goal of improving health care outcomes through collective input.

In North Dakota, the rapid communication afforded by broadband is crucial. The Peace Garden State has the second-lowest population density in the country, leading to long trips to the nearest doctors and hospitals. But broadband technology can bring doctors and medical facilities closer.

While our population is dispersed, 98.5 percent of North Dakotans have access to wired or wireless broadband service, and more than 86 percent of our state’s population has access to speeds of 10 megabits per second. This access to broadband can be leveraged through different telehealth technologies to bring doctors and patients closer together.

This next evolution in health care can be stimulated further if lawmakers modernize outdated laws to help promote greater broadband adoption and innovation. One example is the objective by Congress to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Modernizing this law, which oversees America’s communications networks should take considerable deliberation from North Dakota’s Congressional delegation and input should be sought from participants in many areas of today’s Internet ecosystem, including our state’s entrepreneurs. Any new updates to the Telecommunications Act must foremost help facilitate, and avoid interference with, the growing medical-related innovation and digital commerce taking place in our state.

When it was written, the current Telecommunications Act did not account for the dynamic competition in today’s broadband marketplace. In 1996 telephone lines were essentially the only way to connect to the Internet.

Consequently, the law placed services like “cable” and “telephone” into different regulatory silos. However, today wireless, telephone, cable, satellite and fiber-optic networks all compete and converge to bring consumers Internet access. Updating the current Telecommunications Act should account for this dynamic and allow for future innovation in broadband services.

To date the wisdom of a cautious regulatory approach to the Internet has allowed for broadband technology to advance at a rapid pace. This approach has enabled advances in telehealth. For instance, teleneurosurgery consultations, where a neurosurgeon can view a patient’s CT scan and then evaluate the patient over video conference, give patients access to more specialists. Other innovative programs are as simple as offering support for at-risk pregnant patients through every day technologies like text messaging. With robust wired and wireless networks companies have created over 97,000 mobile health apps that help people monitor their health and wellbeing. These improvements in Internet technology contribute to advances in life-saving innovations.

Telehealth’s continued success will depend upon robust network investment to ensure that Internet service providers continue to expand and improve their networks. Fortunately, between 2009 and 2013, private broadband providers have invested nearly $250 billion in Internet infrastructure.

Public officials can help facilitate this tremendous progress. The decisions Congress makes for how we modernize the Telecommunications Act can potentially create greater opportunities for broadband providers and health entrepreneurs alike to invest, invent and compete.

Improving the availability of health services and technology will ensure North Dakotans have the same access to medical care as people living in large cities or densely populated states.

In today’s connected age, our state’s rural communities should have access to the level of health care and cutting edge medical technologies we all deserve. As we commemorate National Doctor’s Day, modernizing today’s communications laws will be a key step towards this important goal.

Dr. Douglas Smith is a founder of WorkPartners, a triage and medical management firm practicing occupational medicine with telephonic injury triage and co-founder of MinuteClinic and the retail clinic business model.