May 20, 2016 — Stakeholders in the legal, medical and technology fields discussed how mental health patients in underserved areas could benefit from broadband connectivity Wednesday at a policy conference at the University of Houston Law Center.
The event was hosted by the Law Center's Health Law & Policy Institute in collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission.
The conference, "Broadband Prescriptions for Mental Health," was part of the Connect2HealthFCC Task Force's "Beyond the Beltway Series" and coincided with National Mental Health Awareness Month in May.
"This historic conference had a phenomenal lineup of presenters," Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes said. "There were demonstrations of all sorts of technologies that reflected the incredible innovations that are taking place that will allow remote access to health care providers."
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was the first speaker, and placed an emphasis on the importance of openly discussing mental health. With millions of adults not receiving mental health care, she said it is necessary to make a transformative shift in mental health care that will require regulatory creativity and flexibility.
"We must not accept the status quo that connectivity gaps and health disparities go hand in hand," Cliburn said. "We look at these chronic problems too often when it comes to mental illness and throw up our hands and say we cannot solve it – we absolutely can.
"We are too often in a state of denial about mental health issues. We are too silent. Today we break that silence."
Residents who live in rural, isolated areas are less likely to have local health care facilities, and many have limited broadband connectivity. The elderly and those in poverty are a particularly vulnerable portion of the population. As a solution, Clyburn said virtualizing physical interaction with medical professionals can lead to increased patient satisfaction and quicker access to services.
"Many studies show that social isolation is as strong a risk factor for dying as smoking," Clyburn said. "The lonely, the elderly, they die earlier and lose their mobility faster than those who are not lonely. Internet usage, online video conferencing, and social networks have been shown to greatly reduce those feelings of isolation. In this instance, it could be the very prescription that is needed."
Dr. Bernard A. Harris, Jr., a former astronaut and the first African-American to perform a spacewalk, delivered the first keynote speech on the future of broadband health technologies. He is now CEO and managing partner of Vesalius Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in broadband technology such as telemedicine and telepsychiatry.
"I returned to Earth with a different mission, an enhanced mission," Harris said. "I realized that there were poor people who were affected who needed health care. So I began to get into a field that utilized my experience as a physician and as a developer of technology to invest in this technology."
Clyburn and Dr. M. Chris Gibbons of the FCC spoke with featured guest Dr. Francisco Fernandez via teleconference. Fernandez is the founding dean, vice president for medical affairs, and professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, which was founded in 2014.
Conference attendees also watched demonstrations by local officials. Dr. David Persse, the Houston Fire Department's medical director of emergency services, presented the department's Emergency Tele-Health and Navigation Project (ETHAN) and its capability to teleconference with patients. Shing Lin, director of public safety technology services for Harris County, presented similar technology, interacting digitally with the Harris County Public Safety LTE mobile command center.
The first panel discussion, titled "Care Challenges in Mental and Behavioral Health and Connected Solutions," focused on the potential to empower patients by increasing their access to information, resources, and support.
Participants included Laura Galbreath, director of the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions, Texas A&M University College of Education Professor Dr. Timothy R. Elliott, Susah Rushing, CEO of the Burke Center, Travis Hanson, executive director of the West Texas Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center, and Dr. Yahya Shaikh of the FCC. Mickey Slimp, executive director of the East Texas Interactive Healthcare Network, moderated the discussion.
"We're going to have to saturate the nation with broadband like we did with rural electricity 60 years ago," Slimp said.
The following presentation was centered on the growing popularity of health support platforms. Dr. Henry Chung, strategic medical advisor for Big White Wall, demonstrated how the Internet is being used to provide virtual care between clinical encounters to better serve patients. BigWhiteWall.com is a website that offers anonymous discussions and self-help programs for mental health patients.
Dr. Lex Frieden, professor at the UT Health School of Biomedical Informatics, gave the second keynote speech, "Connecting to Mental Health Care for People with Disabilities: Access, Quality and Parity for Consumers with Dual Diagnoses." Frieden acknowledged the difficulties and potential pitfalls for patients seeking health care access remotely.
"The major barrier to access is money," Frieden said. "Two-thirds of the population of people with disabilities and perhaps a higher proportion of people with behavioral health issues in the United States today are indigent. People can't get online if they can't pay the bills."
The second panel, "Policy Issues and Prescriptions in Broadband-Enabled Mental Health Care," explored how federal and state laws impact the development and utilization of broadband technologies, and possible solutions to regulatory hurdles.
Panelists included Nora Belcher, executive director of the Texas e-Health Alliance, state Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), Gibbons of the FCC, Mari Robinson, executive director of the Texas Medical Board, and state Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond). Law Center Director of Research and Research Professor Allison N. Winnike served as moderator.
Multiple exhibits showcasing innovative broadband technologies were on display at the Law Center during the conference, including the Houston Fire Department's ETHAN Project and EMS Unit, Harris County's Public Safety LTE mobile command center, and UTHealth's Mobile Stroke Unit.
Baylor College of Medicine Assistant Professor Dr. Nidal Moukaddam showed the Smartphone and Online Usage-Based Evaluation for Depression Project (SOLVD), a smartphone app that helps diagnose and treat patients with depression. Representatives from Rice University's Scalable Health Initiative and Rural Health Telecom also participated in the conference.
Additional speakers were Brian Henry, director of telehealth at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Judi Manis, AT&T's regional vice president for business development and strategic relations, Law Center Assistant Professor Jessica Mantel, Dr. Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, Dr. Thomas Tsang, COO and co-founder of Valera Health, Law Center Research Professor Ronald Scott, and Sharon Strover, the Phillip G. Warner Regents Professor in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.