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Digital Health Companies Adapted With Agility to Meet Outstanding Demands During the Pandemic

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Screenshot of Kinsa CEO Inder Singh

January 19, 2021—The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pressure digital health companies to adapt and scale with remarkable agility to meet unprecedented demands for their services.

At the Consumer Technology Association’s annual Consumer Electronics Show on January 12, David Kirkpatrick, editor-in-chief of Techonomy Media, facilitated a robust discussion with a panel of experts on the telehealth lessons learned from 2020 and the future of digital health.

“As a country, we were unprepared,” said Lee Schwamm, vice president of Digital Health Virtual Care at Mass General Brigham. “Internet service providers were not prepared for the increased internet load, and video teleconferencing providers were not prepared for the spike in demand.”

The panelists agreed that while many things were learned from the pandemic throughout 2020, the main thing that was brought to light is that people need quality health care at affordable prices.

According to panelists, the costs associated with health care are a major roadblock to digitizing the health system, as payers may wonder what the true value of the health services they are paying for is.

These payers include employers who may seek to save money on health expenses when trying to find the best providers for their employees. If employers can hold digital health companies to a high standard, their employees can enjoy lower health care costs, thus saving money for the employer’s bottom line.

Deneen Vojta, executive vice president at United Health Group, further critiqued COVID-19 responses in 2020, saying America’s health care system focuses too heavily on the end stage of diseases and health ailments. Vojta said directing resources towards early health care treatment in the form of signal detection and prevention is severely under cared for.

The future of digital health care

Looking forward, “there is a great challenge to find the best and safest ways to bring employees back to school and students back to work,” said Vivian Lee, president of platforms at Verily.

Lee discussed ways to leverage technology to bring employees and students back to traditional, in-person settings, such as building digitalized back-to-work and school programs, getting COVID-19 testing to all, and developing health apps, which can aid research in numerous ways, as many have access to smartphones and computer devices.

Inder Singh, CEO of Kinsa, further voiced optimism in telemedicine applications and tools. When the next pandemic hits, people must be prepared to combat it not just physically, but digitally, he said.

Kinsa makes a connected thermometer on smart devices via an app that communicates with others if the user has early signs of sickness. Kinsa was able to predict flu incidents months out on a city-to-city basis thanks to the nearly 2 million user downloads it had on smart devices.

Singh reminded that many underserved communities still lack access to broadband, noting that smartphones are more commonly accessible to low-income Americans.

In addition to getting the current COVID-19 pandemic under control, Lee believes mental well-being should be a priority of digital health initiatives going forward. By having access to mental telehealth services, patients can see health providers much faster and easier than the traditional means of physically traveling to a practice or clinic.

Lee warned that not all telehealth care is the same, as intense discussions over fee-per-service or value-based health care continue to rage on. Lee said she believes that health providers should be paid only when “delivering better health outcomes resulting in the patient’s improvement, rather than utilizing a fee-per-service” based system.

Funding

Another $700 Million for 26 States Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

Over 400,000 locations across the U.S. will get broadband in this funding wave.

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Photo by John Staley from NextTV

WASHINGTON, November 12, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Wednesday that it will authorize $709,060,159 for 26 states through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

These are disbursements of the $9.2 billion that were announced in round one of the RDOF reverse auction that took place in the fall of 2020.

The rural fund supports new broadband deployment efforts for 50 broadband providers in 400,000 locations across the U.S. Much of the funding will go to nonprofit rural electric cooperatives to deploy broadband in their service areas.

But others awarded funding under the auction have already defaulted on coverage that they said they would provide as part of their winning bids.

The 26 states ready to receive Wednesday’s funding include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that the announcement “highlights the agency’s commitment to supporting even more opportunities to connect hundreds of thousands of Americans to high-speed, reliable broadband service while doing our due diligence to ensure the applicants can deliver to these unserved communities as promised.”

The Commission’s announcement comes after the FCC launched the second round of its COVID-19 Telehealth Program on Tuesday, granting $42.5 million for health care providers. This telehealth program and exceeds the FCC’s $150 million goal by reaching $166.13 million for telehealth funding.

These funding programs provide reimbursements for telecommunication and information services and connected devices the providers have purchased to continue their telehealth services. The Commission also announced $421 million on Monday to keep over 10 million students connected across the U.S. as part of the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

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Health

Senate Subcommittee Hears Broadband Affordability, Regulatory Flex Key to Reducing Hospital Burdens

Health providers testified before a Senate subcommittee that Congress should be open to all forms of telehealth.

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WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – A Senate subcommittee heard Thursday that affordability is the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that lawmakers should exercise regulatory flexibility when it comes to the forms of telehealth to help reduce inessential hospital visits.

Covid-19 often brings about extreme shortness of breath, the severity of which is best assessed by a doctor, Deanna Larson, president of Avel eCARE, told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, which convened a hearing on the state of telehealth and removing barriers to access and improving patient outcomes.

Patients with affordable, high speed internet access can be monitored at home by doctors so that they don’t enter an emergency room or take up a hospital bed prematurely, she said.

Larson urged Congress to extend or make permanent their regulatory flexibility toward telehealth especially as it relates to being neutral on the kinds of telemedicine, such as phone-only care, asynchronous care, and remote patient monitoring. An economic benefit of which would be keeping medical commerce local, she said. Patients wouldn’t be required as often to move to a higher level of care out of town.

Physicians would have 24-hour access to the patient through video calls, monitoring patients in a way which significantly lightens the burdens of the healthcare system, added Larson. With telehealth, doctors can advise patients on exactly when and if they need to go to an emergency room.

Steps to improve telehealth

The committee also heard testimony from Sterling Ransone Jr., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Ransone, a strong proponent of telehealth, has found that the digital divide touches rural, tribal and urban communities alike and proposed a series of steps Congress could take to increase public health through broadband policy, including investing in universal affordable broadband service, digital literacy services, end-user devices, audio-only telehealth and data collection in the determinants and outcomes of telehealth as it relates to key factors such as race, gender, ethnicity and language.

Defining broadband as a social determinant of health, Ransone highlighted that affordability is possibly the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that affordability and access disproportionately affect rural communities.

Sanjeev Arora, founder of Project ECHO and distinguished professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, agreed: “expanding access to high-quality, high-speed broadband connectivity is critical. It’s a prerequisite for the success of any telehealth model in rural communities and urban underserved areas.”

Telehealth isn’t just vital and broadly popular, it is cost saving. Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, who also appeared before the subcommittee, shared an estimate that widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

Carr, in an effort to reduce inessential hospital visits and decrease the risk of spreading Covid-19, endorsed the CONNECT for Health Act, the RUSH Act of 2021, the Telehealth Modernization Act, and the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, which in combination would remove geographic restrictions to telehealth services, foster use of telehealth in skilled nursing facilities, grant the Secretary of Health and Human Services greater ability to reduce telehealth restrictions and more.

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Expert Opinion

Craig Settles: Libraries, Barbershops and Salons Tackle TeleHealthcare Gap

Craig Settles describes the important role that community institutions have played in promoting connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Photo of Urban Kutz Barbershops owner Waverly Willis getting his blood pressure checked used with permission

Today, Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., Senator Chris Van Hollen,D-Maryland, and Representative Grace Meng, D-N.Y., led 40 members of Congress to introduce the Securing Universal Communications Connectivity to Ensure Students Succeed (SUCCESS) Act. The bill would extend the Emergency Connectivity Fund by five years and provide $8 billion a year to schools and libraries for student connectivity off-campus.

Barbershops and hair salons are long-time anchor institutions in African-American communities that have shown promise for advancing telehealth. Their partnering with libraries (a broadband anchor institution), and the Biden Administration’s enlisting of 1,000 shops and salons to help combat COVID-19, telehealth and public health in these communities could go into overdrive.

Missing their July 4 COVID-19 vaccination goals, the Biden Administration raised money to transform the shops into mini-medical centers. This success is motivating shop owners to do more. As one of the targets for $7 billion in broadband funds, libraries are idea partners that can provide broadband services, digital content, and digital and health literacy shops’ customers. 

Mike Brown manages a barbershop in Hyattsville, Maryland, and participated in the vaccination program. Brown and others owners talks with their customer about how the vaccines have been proven to work. “I use my platform to advocate for truth and dispel myths,” said Mr. Brown in an Wall Street Journal article, who has also held a vaccination clinic in his shop. “I’ve gotten about 60% of my clients to get vaccinated.”

The program has opened shop owners’ eyes to the power they have to make a difference in the healthcare of their communities. It’s a logical transition from the vaccination program to hypertension screening. Urban Kutz Barbershops in Cleveland have been screening customers for 12 years, recently with telehealth assistance from the famed Cleveland Clinic’s. 

Owner Waverley Willis says “Barbers and hairdressers are part-time marriage counselors, psychiatrists, spiritual advisers, and expert listeners. So many customers listen to our medical advice.” He has made a noticeable impact on many of his customers’ healthy eating habits as well.

Think differently about broadband, public health and telehealth

On July 1, the Federal Communications Commission began a 45-day Emergency Connectivity Fund of $7.1 billion in broadband and digital technology funding to support libraries and schools. By August 13, libraries interested in grants from the program must present a proposal on how they plan to spend money for libraries laptops, hotspots, Internet services, and other resources to advance education and remote learning. 

A generous interpretation of “education“ enables libraries to serve any patrons with broadband. If libraries are situated in areas in which there are no ISP services, they can request money from ECF to build their own broadband infrastructure for unserved patrons. Unlike traditional E-rate proposals, ECF doesn’t require a competitive bid for services, meaning libraries can present a quote from the first vender they contact.

Libraries partnering with shops and healthcare organization could give shops laptops, telehealth software, and portable hotspots to provide hypertension screening and other healthcare services that are suited to their customers’ needs up to three years. Shop owners often don’t have computing devices or Internet access in their shops. Telehealth devices such as portable digital blood pressure monitors and digital scales will have to be provided separately and possibly through funds from another government agency such as Health & Human Services.

For hypertension screening, for example, shops can take customers’ blood pressures digitally. The healthcare provider takes that data through telehealth and recommends treatment when necessary or advisable. The partner likely would have established rates for their healthcare services. Shops can then decide on additional telehealth services they want to provide.

The shops could work with libraries to develop health information and interactive Web content to reduce hypertension and other medical issues through healthier living, plus the libraries can provide telehealth services beyond what the shops can do.  

Libraries and shops can also designate customers who need a laptop, hotspots and telehealth software for chronic illnesses such as severe hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, mental health treatments, and so forth. However, these devices in this scenario would need to be given out for longer periods then just a couple of weeks. For occasional medical appointments, libraries can loan out laptops and hotspots for limited times such as two or three weeks. Libraries are good at delivering digital training and literacy programs.

Why barbershops, hair salons and libraries? 

Facilitating telehealth and healthcare does have an educational element for barbershop and hair salon customers as well as for general library patrons. These health services and information help both groups of people learn more about their own health, enables them to react effectively to medical issues, and be more proactive in taking care of their health.  

The ability for shops and salons to reach and impact African-American communities is legendary. “This type of barbershop health initiative has been shown to be effective,” said Cameron Webb, a senior White House health equity adviser on the coronavirus. Willis adds, “On more than one occasion, a guy’s blood pressure would be so high we would urge him to skip the haircut and go straight to the emergency room.”

The author of this opinion is municipal broadband expert and industry analyst Craig Settles.

Libraries have years of experience introducing new technology such as broadband to underserved populations. Matt McLain, Associate Director for Community Engagement at Salt Lake County Library, said, “We’ve had a pretty good amount of success reaching Hispanic populations at their markets. We have Asian markets out here too. And our health initiatives are quite important with the church leadership in these communities.”

The healthcare and broadband gaps are real and they are deadly! So many elements of the COVID pandemic reiterates the deadliness of those gaps. According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the data collected as of June 14 nearly two-thirds of people who got at least one dose of the vaccine were White. Only 9% were African-Americans. 14 million urban household cannot get any broadband, without which you cannot get telehealth, and 75% are Black or other people of color. 

There may never be as many federal broadband and health-related grant programs as we are seeing now. Partnership potential between libraries and haircare shops are many. Will public health practitioners and advocates, broadband builders, and community leaders step up?

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses with community stakeholders who want broadband networks to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. He hosts the radio talk show Gigabit Nation, and is Director of Communities United for Broadband, a national grass roots effort to assist communities launching their networks. He recently created a guide to help librarians uncover patrons’ healthcare needs, create community health milestones and effectively market telehealth. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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