Alan Morgan, Chief Executive Officer for the National Rural Health Association.

[imgcontainer right] [img:morganprofile1.jpg] Alan Morgan, Chief Executive Officer for the National Rural Health Association. [/imgcontainer]

For people who live in rural areas, traveling considerable distances may be a necessity for work, shopping, school and health care. 

The distance may be an inconvenience at times, but it is an acceptable tradeoff for the benefits of rural life. But when it comes to health care, distance can be a matter of life and death.

Technology is helping to bridge that gap. High-speed wireless access is the most groundbreaking development in decades for rural health.  It allows patients and their doctors to connect remotely, exchange vital health information and conduct real-time video consultations. 

Those connections between rural patients and their physicians, however, are going to be increasingly dependent on broadband connections. And broadband connections in rural America will demand more investment and an expansion of the wireless spectrum — a topic now under consideration by the Federal Communications Commission. More spectrum will mean more and better care for rural Americans.

For example, apps have been developed that help monitor patients via smartphones and tablets.  A home health monitoring initiative is in the works. These kinds of breakthroughs will allow rural patients to be treated and monitored at home rather than at a hospital that may be many miles from families and support networks.

Expectant and new mothers can receive tips on prenatal care, baby health and parenting over text message.

Emergency medical responders can wirelessly receive a patient’s health history or transmit vital statistics and test results to emergency room personnel from the road.

A bevy of new medical devices that communicate wirelessly with health professionals are starting to have an impact.  A patient at risk for congenital heart failure can step on a scale each morning, knowing that any drastic increases in weight, which would signal a problem, will be communicated immediately to a clinic for evaluation. 

Thousands of people use their smartphones or tablets to access the web each day in search of information about a recent diagnosis or to socialize with others facing the same medical challenges.  Many more turn to mobile applications and the web to support diets and exercise programs.

All of these medical breakthroughs depend on one thing – a robust wireless broadband network that enables the use of sophisticated eHealth applications. This would give rural high-speed wireless users the same access to health care as their urban counterparts.

Unfortunately, wireless coverage is insufficient in many areas, and with explosive growth in demand, the problem isn’t going to going to go away without impressive investment in infrastructure. This investment will take the combined goodwill of both government regulators and private industry.

Right now, the ball is in the court of the Federal Communications Commission, which was recently instructed by Congress to auction additional spectrum.  It can take years from auction to actually put the new spectrum to work, so it is important that the FCC move quickly to get this vital resource into the pipeline.

Immediately, the agency should get to work on Congress’ provision to free up 65mhz of spectrum within the next three years.

Wireless can revolutionize rural health. Imagine the impact that these improvements can have in the care and well being of patients from rural communities who lack easy access to a doctor or hospital.  

But rural American will only benefit from these innovations if wireless providers are given the spectrum they need to provide quality, far-reaching service. We can’t sit back quietly just waiting for change. The FCC needs to work to bring rural America the quality wireless service it needs and deserves.

Alan Morgan serves as Chief Executive Officer for the National Rural Health Association, a nonprofit membership organization with a mission to provide leadership on rural health issues.

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