When we think of the technological advances of the past 20 years, one in particular will probably come to mind for most Americans: wireless technology, which now enables us to access the Internet from anywhere. But when most Americans think of the top uses for the wireless Internet, health care is probably not the first thing on that list. Perhaps, in the near future, it will be.
The current revolution in medicine will use the full potential of technology to transform medical practice to save lives and improve health. Tele-health — the delivery of health-related services and information via telecommunications technologies — not only enhances efficiency, care and affordability, but it holds the key to profound improvements in medical treatment by eliminating physical barriers to high-quality health services.
Thanks to broadband, a primary care doctor can now digitally transmit images to a specialist across the country or even across the globe with the click of a button. And imagine the convenience of digital consultations with a physician while still in your home, with secure, remote access to medical records that span the entirety of one's medical history. Imagine, too, how many lives will be saved when doctors can connect, real-time via video feed, for surgical or medical procedures, with no barriers and physical constraints.
These applications will have the power to improve the lives of those struggling with medical issues that formerly required frequent trips to the hospital and sometimes surgeries or other risky procedures. Further, they will enable earlier detection and more effective treatment of critical health problems through remote monitoring.
These advances are particularly important when we consider that 49 percent of Americans have at least one chronic disease and that for many diseases the impact increasingly falls along racial and ethnic lines. Peer-reviewed studies and government data indicate that racial and ethnic minorities are burdened with a higher prevalence of chronic diseases. Imagine, then, the potential of telemedicine to serve as a lifeline to the African-American community.
Approximately 14.7 percent of African-American adults have diabetes, with many of these cases undiagnosed. Empowering them with the mobile tools they need to manage and address this condition would have a direct benefit on their health because remote, in-home monitoring would send real-time information to their doctor.
The early detection of illness, quicker diagnosis, and the standardization of electronic medical records — allowing different doctors a secure, one-stop shop for access to patient information — are just a few benefits afforded by health information technology and made possible by high-speed Internet connections.
Tele-health will drastically expand access to the highest quality of health care to those who need it most, ultimately eliminating many of the health disparities that result in higher rates of chronic illness, needless suffering and shorter life spans for people of color.
The medical industry is adapting to take full advantage of tele-health technologies, particularly when it comes to wireless healthcare applications. Mobile health care solutions offer effective, affordable and immediate ways for health professionals and patients to better manage their conditions and help patients follow a treatment program. Next-generation patient tools that rely on wireless networks provide first-class health management for patients in their homes. Internet-connected pill caps, for example, can remind patients when to take prescriptions without any buttons or computers. Many Americans are on one or more prescription medications, and products such as these ensure they are taking their pills as prescribed. Further, the technology allows for automatic refills, interaction and feedback, monitoring, and monthly reports for the patient and her doctor.
Yet none of these advances will become real or widespread without two things: greater adoption of wireless broadband technology by consumers, and a way to maximize the increasingly constrained wireless spectrum until additional spectrum is made available for wireless use to meet the exponential growth in consumer demand. In both of these areas, the proposed purchase of T-Mobile by AT&T would take us a giant step forward by making possible the far more efficient use of spectrum in large, majority-minority cities such as Baltimore, where spectrum exhaustion could make tele-health applications impractical.
Today's Internet technology allows for seamless integration across the health care sector, making possible more efficient health care management, timely diagnosis, convenience for patients, and new treatment and preventive tools that can positively transform care for all Americans. I share President Barack Obama's vision of connecting all of America to the Digital Age. Particularly when it comes to the nation's health, we cannot leave anyone behind.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the Mfume Group, is former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and served as president and CEO of the NAACP. He recently served as executive leader of the National Medical Association. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.