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Verizon, AT&T, Cisco, others eye telehealth growth

Mike King is the director of network and telecommunications for the University Texas-Galveston Medical Branch (UTMB), which provides healthcare services across wide swathes of urban and rural Texas.

And amid the pandemic, telehealth technology is suddenly front and center in King's work.

Specifically, King said the number of UTMB's telehealth "encounters'' has more than doubled due to the spread of COVID-19, from around 1,000 per day to 2,000 per day or more – which means that roughly half of all the provider's work with patients is now done remotely. These interactions happen either on the phone or via videoconference, depending on the issue and the equipment available, and connect a stuck-at-home patient with a doctor who is either at the hospital or at home.

King said some of UTMB's doctors quickly embraced the changes, but "we had others who had to be helped."

Will telehealth become the new normal? King thinks so. Once you get used to telehealth, "it's really hard to go back," he said.

Plenty of vendor interest
King made his comments on telehealth in conjunction with a Cisco virtual event Tuesday focusing on the effects of the pandemic on first responders and society at large. Speakers included AT&T's FirstNet SVP Jason Porter and Andrés Irlando, president of Verizon's "public sector" that sells services to public-safety officials.

Executives generally said they have been working overtime during the past few weeks to make sure doctors, nurses and other medical professionals and first responders remain connected as they fight COVID-19. "This was like a fire, flood and tornado in every single city at the same time," said AT&T's Porter of the demand for FirstNet services.

That said, Porter and other executives said their networks have managed to meet that demand, and that traffic growth is beginning to plateau.

However, "this gives us a peek at what the future looks like," argued Verizon's Irlando, explaining that traffic likely will start to decline as most Americans return to work, but some things won't return to the way things were.

"We've really opened up the floodgates," King said of UTMB's telehealth efforts. Patients, he said, "are really going to be demanding this."

Others agree. "You and I will never sit in a doctor's office sick again," said Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business, in explaining the operator's recent decision to purchase videoconferencing provider BlueJeans.

Regulatory support for telehealth
Interestingly, King said that UTMB's telehealth offerings were relatively easy to implement. He said the provider makes use of existing devices and conferencing products like Cisco's Webex. "It was never a technology problem," he said.

Instead, one of the biggest obstacles was how healthcare insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, account for telehealth services. Prior to the pandemic, healthcare pricing generally discouraged the use of videoconferencing and phone calls for doctor's visits, but new rules implemented due to COVID-19 now incentivize the practice, King explained.

In the telecom sector, the FCC is working to promote telehealth offerings. Earlier this month, the agency voted to adopt a $200 million telehealth program as part of Congress' CARES Act.

According to one recent report, the FCC has so far approved 17 applications, including $1 million for Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans for telehealth services and devices, and around $984,000 for NYU Langone Health in New York City for telehealth capabilities in operating rooms and conference rooms.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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