ORLANDO, Fla. – Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, much of the country, including Central Florida, has relied on telehealth, both patients and doctors.
Telehealth is technology that allows patients to check in with doctors using a phone or computer or tablet, usually over the internet, connected by cameras and microphones.
During the past few months, the Federal Communications Commission has awarded $200 million in grants to health care facilities across the United States. Of that, $7 million went to 14 facilities in Florida to add or upgrade their telehealth capability.
On Friday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr visited four of those Central Florida health care facilities, including Orlando nonprofit Grace Medical Home, which serves those in Orange County who are employed but not insured.
“This particular facility had zero telehealth visits before March,” Carr said. “Since then, they’ve had somewhere around 800 telehealth visits.”
Thanks to a donation, Grace added telehealth just days before the pandemic hit in March.
Dr. Kirsten Carter said the FCC grant enabled Grace to expand its telehealth capability “in ways we never imagined.”
“Life saving sounds like a made-up comment but it really was, especially in the light of COVID,” Carter said. “Our patients don’t have anything else. They have nowhere else to go. So we were able to continue serving them, helping them with medication, and most of our patients do have a lot of medical problems that otherwise would have been a problem.”
Carter said telehealth also saves on the need to purchase personal protective equipment since doctors can meet with patients virtually without protective gear.
And state-of-the-art telehealth technology allows patients to be regularly monitored through Bluetooth-connected devices like blood pressure cuffs, glucose meters and heartrate monitors. The devices relay the results to doctors who can treat patients as symptoms appear, often preventing a costly visit to the emergency room, or worse, no treatment at all.
Carr said a telehealth-enabled medical facility he toured recently was regularly monitoring a woman’s diabetes -- virtually.
“They sent her home (from the hospital) with a Bluetooth-enabled glucose monitor,” Carr said. “So every day at home she would prick her finger, it would give her her A1C level and she would get instant feedback about what to do. And what we found is that constant monitoring, that remote monitoring, was able to keep her within a range of healthiness. Whereas normally people would wait until their condition got out of hand and they would end up in an emergency room, which is of course the most expensive part of our health care system.”
Carr said the FCC has been pushing to upgrade telehealth technology and reliable access to internet, both wireless and broadband, for the past several years.
Carr said internet accessibility has improved as much as 30 fold during the past few years but the FCC never expected the need for reliable internet access would become as critical as it has.
“When COVD-19 hit, our lives in an instant moved on to the internet, working, educating our kids, accessing health care,” Carr said. “If you don’t have a high-speed internet connection, you’re really missing out. So our top priority at the FCC has been to close this digital divide.”
What about 5G high-speed wireless internet in Florida?
Carr said Central Florida’s rollout is going “pretty well.”
“America leads the world in wireless and most people think when they open up their smartphone that it just works on magic or pixie dust,” Carr said. “What they lose sight of is it’s a massive infrastructure endeavor to provide internet service and connectivity in the country, so I try and spend a lot of time with America’s tower climbers and tower techs.”
On Saturday, Carr will be watching the upgrade to WKMG-TV News 6′s broadcast tower to make spectrum space for 5G airwaves across Central Florida. The top portion of the tower will be lifted off and replaced via helicopter.
Carr will climb the tower with tower techs.
“We actually need to expand America’s workforce when it comes to tower techs,” Carr said. “You can go through an 8- to 12-week training program, you can immediately land a job in the tower industry that pays around starting around $60 (thousand) or $70,000 with a lot of upward mobility, as we say. These are highly skilled people performing important work, we can immediately hire in this country 20,000 more tower techs, so when you think about how we get this economy going again if people look for jobs, we’re trying to help spread the word about good paying jobs that are out there.”
Carr said next month the FCC will begin spending as much as $450 million in Florida to build out internet infrastructure to 150,000 homes and businesses in the state that have no service.
“I think this infusion of additional funding is going to make a difference to continue to extend infrastructure builds,” Carr said. “The $450 million is designed to serve every single location we’ve identified that doesn’t have internet access today, so it’s a 10-year initiative but the goal is to eliminate the digital divide.”
Carr said despite the controversy and concern over 5G, the FCC believes the high-speed wireless technology is safe.
“The FDA is actually one of the expert agencies that looks at this and constantly reviewing the health and safety information when it comes to 5G,” Carr said. “They look at dozens of studies and they consistently conclude that 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi, all sorts of approved wireless technologies are safe for humans, that continues to be the position of the federal government.”
Carr said he expects Central Florida to be fully covered by 5G in the next couple of years.
“So we are in the midst of rolling out 5G right now, it already is beyond some of the biggest cities,” Carr said. “One wireless provider alone has committed to bringing 5G to 99% of the U.S. population within the next couple of years.”