UA College of Medicine's Arizona Telemedicine Program Shares $15 Million Grant to Upgrade Southwest Health Care Broadband Telecommunications Network

The FCC authorized as much as $15.56 million over three years to develop and expand...
The development of advanced high-speed communications technology to improve health care throughout Arizona and the Southwest just received a boost with more than $15 million from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The national award-winning Arizona Telemedicine Program (ATP) at The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson -- which will receive $875,000 -- co-authored a successful proposal that will be funded by the FCC''s Rural Health Care Pilot Program (RHCPP). Many independent health care organizations in the Southwest, from both the public and private sectors, will benefit from this collaborative program.

 Through the RHCPP, the FCC has dedicated more than $417 million for the construction of 69 statewide or regional broadband telehealth networks in 42 states and three U.S. territories to significantly increase rural America''s access to acute, primary and preventive health care. The need for high-speed data transmission via broadband is great in rural health care, where isolated clinics can save lives by using advanced communications technology to tap the expertise of modern urban medical centers.

The FCC authorized as much as $15.56 million over three years to develop and expand the new Southwest Telehealth Access Grid. The grant proposal was co-authored by members of the Four Corners Telehealth Consortium, which was organized in 2004 by Ronald S. Weinstein, MD, founding director of the ATP and executive director of the UA College of Medicine Institute for Advanced Telemedicine and Telehealth (T-Health). The Four Corners Telehealth Consortium includes Dr. Weinstein, representing Arizona, and the directors of other state-based telemedicine/telehealth programs headquartered at the Universities of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

"Funding of the Southwest Telehealth Access Grid represents a significant step toward the creation of a nationwide broadband network dedicated to health care," says Dr. Weinstein. "The Arizona State Legislature has been promoting the implementation of broadband telecommunications telemedicine applications in Arizona for more than a decade through its support of the ATP. This already benefits dozens of Arizona communities. Linking the Four Corner states'' networks is a significant step forward from the national perspective. It creates the opportunity for the linked Four Corners telehealth broadband networks to become a cornerstone of a national broadband health care network infrastructure."

The ATP''s share of the RHCPP funding will support the upgrade of the Arizona Telemedicine Network''s telecommunications network infrastructure and will partially subsidize telemedicine telecommunications services that previously were ineligible for the FCC Universal Service Fund (USF) program. (The universal service fee is collected from long-distance and wireless subscribers and subsidizes phone and Internet service to schools, libraries, low-income populations and rural areas.) The upgraded network infrastructure systems will provide enhanced security and quality-of-service capabilities for telemedicine communications. The Arizona Telemedicine Network, operated by the ATP and headquartered at the Arizona Health Sciences Center on the UA campus in Tucson, links 171 sites in 71 communities by broadband telecommunications. In addition to health care services, the network supports numerous clinical research and distance-education programs in the region.

USF telecommunications subsidies have been an important enabling factor for telemedicine in many rural Arizona communities. The RHCPP program will provide many more opportunities to communicate and collaborate with a broad range of telehealth researchers, service providers and clients.

"This upgrade in Arizona will enable us to support a number of next-generation telehealth applications," says Dr. Weinstein. "We anticipate that access to secure high-speed communications via national network backbones such as Internet2 and National LambdaRail will be important for telemedicine applications that are under development, such as three-dimensional imaging, and will catalyze a new round of innovation in the telehealth world."

(Internet2 is a not-for-profit collaborative project led by U.S. universities working in partnership with industry and government that develops and deploys advanced network applications and Internet technologies for education and high-speed data transfer purposes; Internet2''s existing network capabilities are uniquely suited for health care and health sciences applications that require reliability and consistent performance. National LambdaRail (NLR) is a major initiative of U.S. research universities, regional networking organizations and private sector technology companies providing a state-of-the-art high-speed national computer network to advance knowledge and understanding and to support research in developing new networking technologies and capabilities.)

The University of New Mexico will administer the Southwest Telehealth Access Grid component of the Four Corner network. Participating states include Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico; the FCC also added Texas to the grid.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said, "The development of such a network will create numerous opportunities for delivering telehealth services, including telemedicine applications that have the potential to revolutionize the current health care system throughout the nation. A dedicated national broadband network also will facilitate the President''s goal of implementing electronic medical records nationwide."

The ATP has both state and federal sponsors and has participated in many U.S. Department of Defense projects over the years. Initial meetings to organize the Four Corners Telehealth Consortium were funded, in part, by the U.S. Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technologies Research Center (TATRC), headquartered at the U.S. Army Material Command at Ft. Detrick, Md. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Army has promoted the use of telemedicine in the U.S. and internationally, turning to Dr. Weinstein and the ATP to address national and international jurisdictional issues in telemedicine, including interstate licensing and institutional credentialing of telephysicians. The ATP''s involvement with international telemedicine includes collaborative programs in Latin America, the Balkans and Asia.

"The Arizona Telemedicine Program''s top priority is to provide health care for geographically remote and underserved populations in Arizona," says Dr. Weinstein. "At the same time, we can serve as a model program for other states and countries throughout the world."

For more information about the Arizona Telemedicine Program, visit the Web site http://www.telemedicine.arizona.edu.