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In recent months the net neutrality debate has been a hot topic within the tech world, but its impacts reach far beyond the digital community. Net neutrality refers to the idea that all internet traffic (including loading websites, downloads, streaming content and data sharing) should be treated equally by internet service providers, or ISPs. If the Federal Communications Commission decides not to enforce rules supporting net neutrality, ISPs would have the ability to alter the speed and content available to users.
On one hand, ISPs could charge website owners for paid prioritization to create “fast lanes” for their content or services. On the other hand, ISPs would also have the ability to restrict the speed of data sharing or content if they view it as less valuable, such as online gaming or movie streaming. This control of digital information reaches far beyond media sharing, however, and could have serious implications on the future of innovation, technology and delivery of services in the healthcare industry.
Supporters of net neutrality claim that all data must be treated equally by ISPs so that the internet remains a valuable resource for health information, communication and care delivery. The development of Electronic Health Records (EHR) and telemedicine has enabled doctors and patients to share data in-real time regardless of location. Not only can patients access their own EHR wherever and whenever they need, but doctors can quickly send information like MRI scans to specialists to decide on an individualized course of treatment. In addition, the use of telemedicine via video chat or email has enabled patients to seek care from physicians despite geographic location, ensuring the best treatment for them while saving time and money.
Net neutrality supporters argue that these valuable tools will be in danger if ISPs are granted authority over internet traffic because they could influence which digital health services and information users can access. This could drive up the cost or even completely omit certain healthcare website providers and services – essentially decreasing the effectiveness of patient treatment.
Critics of net neutrality argue that allowing some websites and services paid prioritization would improve the efficiency of healthcare. These critics state that with increased use of online healthcare services, including telemedicine and EHRs, there is only so much bandwidth available. For this reason, they propose that digital content and services should be allocated bandwidth based on the value of their data. For example, healthcare providers could pay ISPs to create a “fast lane” to ensure that patient health records were being shared at the most efficient rate possible. Another argument of critics is that net neutrality is discouraging cable and phone corporations from investing in the expansion of the existing network infrastructure. Allowing these companies paid prioritization of their data would encourage them to invest in the network to further increase data sharing speed and spur healthcare technology innovation.
Despite previous setbacks, the FCC is expected to make their decision in 2015. As the case moves forward, it’s important to remain aware that this decision has a wide impact on our daily lives, not just your nightly Netflix streaming.
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