The COVD-19 pandemic has been an extremely difficult time for everyone and has led to the implementation of major changes in our daily behaviors. In order to overcome this adversity and adapt to living in a new age, great innovations have been advanced.
New tech devices and programs have offered many solutions to help solve some of our struggles during this pandemic and raise our spirts.
The pandemic has also highlighted how technology supports consumers who are homebound or living distant from essential services. In a post-pandemic environment, we can already predict that many consumers, particularly older adults, will continue to rely on many tech services they have adopted during COVID-19. Services such as online shopping and telehealth have been particularly indispensable during this era of stay-at-home orders, social distancing and quarantine.
The benefits of telehealth options for all consumers have been demonstrated during this pandemic. Telehealth has replaced many routine doctor’s visits, has been used for setting-up COVID testing appointments, and conducting all too critical mental health sessions during periods of isolation. It has also served to keep medical workers safe during the pandemic.
According to a Center for Disease Control report, there was a “154 percent increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020, compared with the same period in 2019….”
During the emergence of COVID-19, both a majority of doctor’s offices were closed, and their patients were staying in their homes. Options for medical appointments were limited to a telehealth visit only, and while most medical offices reopened with safety protocols in place, many consumers opted to continue with telehealth medical appointments.
The reduction of red tape and the number of doctors who quickly adapted to virtual services was one of the greatest developments of 2020; however, only those who have adequate access to broadband internet are able to take advantage of this tool, leaving out the unconnected population.
As we contemplate permanent integration of virtual care into our medical health system, we must acknowledge that consumer demand for telehealth requires access to ubiquitous high-speed broadband. In 2021, policymakers need to take aggressive steps to deliver broadband to those who do not have access, or who are unable to afford the service.
The $900 billion-dollar COVID Relief package approved by Congress in the final days of 2020 provides $7 billion to increase access to broadband. In addition, Telehealth expansion is included within the broadband funding priorities. The package more broadly includes overall support for these initiatives, with funding for:
- Expanding telehealth access to mental health services for Medicare patients
- Closing rural telehealth gaps to provide increased funding to the Health and Human Services agency’s Health Resources and Service Administrations pilot project for Telehealth Centers of Excellence, to access broadband capacity available to rural health providers and patient communities
- The Federal Communications Commission to support the efforts of health care providers to address coronavirus by providing telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services.
The FCC has made a broad commitment to telehealth programs, initially under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, and now in the most capable hands of Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. The Chairwoman recently visited the Washington, D.C., Whitman-Walker Clinic, which provides community-based health and wellness services specializing in LGBTQ and HIV care.
Rosenworcel said: “Through expanded and affordable access to broadband for all, organizations like Whitman-Walker and clinics around the country can continue to grow their telehealth efforts to support their communities.”
The Acting Chair is committed to closing the digital divide and sees access to telehealth care services—especially for underserved and marginalized communities—as a top priority. The FCC has initiated a number of COVID-19 Telehealth Programs and the Connected Care Pilot Program to focus on implementing innovative telehealth initiatives.
Telehealth has met the demand of health care management during the pandemic and has become particularly essential for older adults unable to leave their homes for medical visits. It is vital that programs and policies supporting this technology continue to be a significant priority. In addition, access and affordability of high-speed broadband must be ubiquitous and affordable for all.
Debra Berlyn is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL), and president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm centered on developing public policies addressing the interests of consumers and the marketplace. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.