Last week, an infant at a clinic in the Northern California town of Redding underwent a lengthy hearing test that was administered by a pediatric audiologist located in Sacramento. It was done via telemedicine as part of the first such program of its kind in the nation. Nearly 40% of newborns in Northern California who are in need of additional testing for potential hearing abnormalities have not been getting screened because of the lack of local pediatric hearing specialists. Now, thanks to this federally funded pilot program, a unique partnership between two separate health-care systems is helping infants and their families receive critical follow-up care without leaving their own community.
This type of specialty care initiative was exactly what the developers of the California Telehealth Advancement Act had in mind.Â It represents one of the key building blocks in technology-enabled health care, along with more broadband infrastructure investment and connectivity, as well as more training and education.
To optimize the benefits of telehealth, policies and regulations must continue to evolve. High-tech health-care tools will be fully effective and incorporated into the mainstream only when care is better coordinated between patients, health-care providers, hospitals, pharmacies and others. That said, the array of telehealth partnerships and projects reflects a remarkable transition that is well under way and offers great promise:
New broadband connections: Over the past year, more than 100 clinical sites around the state have been connected to the California Telehealth Networkâs high-speed, medical grade broadband system. The new network is providing the crucial infrastructure for collectively addressing some of the challenges that constrain telehealth from becoming part of the medical mainstream.
Workforce Development: For telehealth to become more effective and ubiquitous, California must develop a workforce that has the skills to adopt new technologies and models of care. Such training is already taking place through statewide projects like the U.S. Department of Commerceâs Broadband Opportunities and Training Program, which awarded more than $9 million last year to help advance technology-enabled health care and made it possible for telehealth leaders in the state to leverage an additional $5 million in matching funds.
Creating Long-Term Sustainability: As part of the federal broadband opportunities grant, 15 entities around the state recently were named âModel eHealth Communitiesâ to help further advance technology-enabled health care. These designated communities will become best-practice examples in the use and integration of technology to improve health and health care. The innovative program recognizes that in order to raise Californiaâs literacy levels in areas like telehealth, collaborative efforts must be fostered among the spectrum of organizations that people turn to for health care and health information.
Training the Next Generation: The opening of the California Telehealth Resource Center next summer on UC Davisâ Sacramento campus promises to be another example of an important turning point. The 52,000 square-foot facility, with its capital city location, is designed to help the next generation of physicians, nurses and other health-care professionals more fully embrace telehealth.
California is fortunate to have a favorable policy environment for embracing new technologies. As projects like the pediatric telehealth audiology project illustrate, new collaborations help pave the way for new models of care. Because the full potential of technology-enabled health care has yet to be realized, we must continue working to ensure that regulations and policies align with our new models of care so that tools like telehealth will enable us to truly advance health for all.