2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Telehealth deserves attention in debate over 5G technology

High-speed connection needed for effective electronic care

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Montgomery County is currently debating 5G cellular technology and improving infrastructure.

While MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, does not normally get involved in local zoning matters, we do think Montgomery County needs to consider health care as it considers its technology infrastructure.

One only needs to look to the recent pandemic to see the importance of access to high-speed internet.

When COVID-19 swept the globe more than a year ago, physicians and health care workers stepped up.

Not only did quick action enable testing and treatment for those affected by the virus, but a shift to virtual platforms also allowed patients to continue safely and effectively receiving care remotely.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the emergence of COVID-19, telehealth visits increased by 154 percent. In Maryland, nearly five times more patients took advantage of telehealth in 2020, with a 95 percent satisfaction rate.

While the pandemic made telehealth a necessity, the continuity of care, lower costs and improved communication between patients and caregivers will continue to drive demand for virtual care, even after the pandemic is over.

Telehealth promoted health equity by reaching patients where they are.

Essential workers and other patients who cannot take time away from work or family use telehealth to check in with doctors, resolving some barriers to care, especially for families balancing home and work life, employees who are unable to take time off, and vulnerable populations who live far from medical services.

For these reasons, MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society, our members and other organizations like the Maryland Hospital Association fought during this past Maryland General Assembly session to broaden quality telehealth access permanently with the Preserve Telehealth Access Act of 2021, which provided significant gains for audio-only access and payment parity for telehealth services including remote patient monitoring.

There is more work to be done. This new telehealth legislation passed and sunsets in two years, when it would need to be revisited by the General Assembly.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, we need to consider access and connectivity, as connectivity is critical to both accessing telehealth and making it equitable.

For the 14 percent of households in Maryland that don’t have a broadband internet connection, mobile networks are key. This is particularly true in underserved communities, which are more likely to rely on a smartphone to get online.

In urban areas like Baltimore City, the disparity increases, with more than 40 percent of households lacking high-speed internet.

In addition, attending a doctor’s appointment while you are on a break at work or caring for family comes with its own set of privacy concerns. Interestingly, many patients are doing appointments from their cars, where they won’t be overheard. Mobile networks are particularly critical in instances like these.

To expand access to the benefits of telehealth, we must continue to support technological innovation that will ensure everyone has reliable and high-quality internet access. For those who rely on mobile connectivity, the next generation of wireless networks — 5G — will ensure they are able to have a quality video consultation with their health care provider.

5G requires a small cell network of low-powered antennas that sit on utility poles and streetlights. These small cells are connected by fiber optic cable to transmit large amounts of data at the speed of light.

A robust small cell network is critical to advancing greater mobile connectivity that will expand wireless broadband access and innovation across all sectors.

With better connectivity, telehealth has the ability to extend beyond convenience and equity to the innovative ways digital information can enhance patient care.

For patients who are post-discharge or have chronic conditions, wearable devices that track heart rate, blood pressure, or glucose can be integrated in real time into their health records.

And during emergencies, real-time video gives EMTs the ability to show an emergency room what’s coming, supporting treatment while they are en route to the hospital. This increased connection leads to better communication, lower costs and improved outcomes.

In the future, innovations like remote surgery will provide patients with access to world-class surgeons regardless of their location.

In the coming months, MedChi will continue to advocate and support policies to increase access to all care, including telehealth, as well as connectivity.

As we work to ensure every Marylander has the opportunity to benefit from an expanded telehealth program in our state, we must also enable the right infrastructure — including a robust small cell network — to be implemented for our community to benefit from equitable care.

Gene Ransom is the CEO of MedChi, The Maryland State Medical Society.

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