Telemedicine program gets boost of funds from private groups

Telemedicine program gets boost of funds from private groups

A health plan and private organization gives needed financial support to pilot telemedicine programs

The program out of University of California, Davis to develop the most sophisticated telemedicine program across the state of California received an additional $8 million in grants from private organizations after the federal government pledged $22 million for the program in November.

United Healthcare, the nation''s largest health insurer, pledged $5 million and the California Emerging Technology Fund pledged $3 million in November.

"We now have enough funds to carry out the program," said David Harry, assistant director of the Center for Health and Technology at UC Davis, the group that is leading the program statewide.

"The objective of the program is to build a statewide telemedicine network in the next three years, mostly in rural areas to start, that will give medical providers access to medical experts at the many urban hospitals such as the University of California system."

The initial idea came from the Federal Communications Commission with a pledge of $400 million to jump start such a program in states across the country. The FCC awarded California $22 million in November, after the residents of the state already approved $200 in a bond measure to build telemedicine infrastructure.

Telemedicine can be used to provide medical education, assistance and other services to medical providers in communities far from urban areas. The concept developed out of an imitative to prepare the national for natural disasters. Eventually, the services will also be available in most medical settings, including urban areas, said Harry.

"This money basically pays for the railroad tracks," Harry said. Laying the unique cables and communications infrastructure to provide real time video, data, and voice is very expensive.

More funding will be needed to purchase telecommunications technology such as video conferencing equipment, training, and other medical technologies used in the program.

"As we move forward this year with comprehensive health care reform, using technology is a major component in improving patient care. By expanding broadband networks for telemedicine, we can connect the best medical experts to clinics in remote areas of the state. It''s critical that California continues to lead the way with this technology, which shows how we can save time, money and most importantly, we can save lives," said Governor Schwarzenegger in a statement.

Given the state''s large geographic area, 155,000 square miles, the UC system has identified 319 rural sites for the pilot phase of the program. The plan calls for the establishment and operations of 126 sites in one year, 89 sites in year two, and 104 sites in year three. Of these sites, 208 are in designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, according to the state''s proposal that was submitted to the FCC this summer.

The sites are located in areas that have insufficient broadband penetration, such as the Central Valley, North Coast, and the Riverside-Imperial-San Diego County region.

—By Troy May

Troy May is the executive editor of the Healthcare Journal. You can reach him at tmay@healthcarejournalnorcal.com.

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