On April 4, 1970, a federally funded research and demonstration project I helped coordinate in southern Arizona received national media and congressional attention when it demonstrated the feasibility of utilizing microwave transmission for mobile medical units in isolated rural areas.
The project was the brainchild of my good friend Jack Reeves. At the time Jack was the Coordinator of Resources and Planning for Arizona Rural Effort, Inc. (ARE), a five-county Community Action Agency (CAA) headquartered in Yuma, Arizona.
ARE was one of the War on Poverty programs created as part of President Johnson's Great Society legislative agenda. The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was established in 1964 to oversee Community Action Agencies (CAAs), VISTA, Job Corps and Head Start. Its first director was R. Sargent Shriver.
In 1969 OEO selected ARE as one of 229 Community Action Agencies throughout the United States to compete for grants to address rural poverty. Jack’s FURPO (Full Utilization of Rural Program Opportunities) proposal was one of the nine funded. The grant was for two years, $150K for each year.
In order to secure the grant Jack wrote to the President, Richard Milhous Nixon, met with Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative Morris Udall and sought the support of the OEO director at the time, Donald Rumsfeld. All four men provided needed support for the project. For example, the president’s introduction to a General Motors Corporation executive was instrumental in obtaining a Chevrolet step van that would eventually house state of the art telecommunication equipment.
The R&D project consisted of a number of features, including the before mention mobile television van designed to produce radio and television broadcasting material for stations throughout the state of Arizona. Jack had persuaded radio stations in all 15 Arizona counties to air a weekly broadcast produced by our Community Action Broadcasting System (CABS). The University of Arizona’s KUAT, a PBS affiliate and the nation’s most powerful noncommercial station aired the broadcast twice a week.
Utilizing the van’s equipment (radio phone and cameras), images of patients were sent via microwave transmission from a high desert location north of Nogales in rural Pima County to doctors in Sierra Vista who were waiting to diagnose their medical needs.
While viewing the television images, Pacific Bell provided audio communications from the remote desert location to Tucson, then on to Sierra Vista via land line, allowing Ft. Huachuca (US Army) physicians to talked with the patients, the nurse, and a lab technician.
The telemedicine demonstration received national attention. Newspapers from all over Arizona covered it. It was one of AP’s top ten news stories. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley ran footage on “NBC Nightly News.”
President Nixon was briefed. Senator Paul Fannin entered a two-page account into the Congressional Record, and Representative Morris Udall (who we had interviewed on a number of occasions) authored a congratulatory letter: “The experiment you are now conducting using mobile TV might just be the ray of hope we need for some lowering of medical costs.”
Though it did not immediately launch a new approach on how we administer and provide health care to rural and remote populations, it certainly proved to be a seminal event in the effort to extend health care to all Arizonans.
Within a year General Electric got involved, wanting to demonstrate use of satellite technology to connect patients and physicians, setting up a demonstration with the Navajo Nation and the University of Arizona Medical School.
Today, the high-tech Arizona Telemedicine Program at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine has little resemblance to our primitive telemedicine demonstration back in 1970. As the leading authority on providing long-distance medical care, U of A’s telemedicine program links 180 sites across the state to provide medical care to residents of rural Arizona, tribal lands and state prisons.