Award Winning Blog

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Racing for the Covid-19 Cure at a Leisurely 14,400 Bits Per Second

One of my recurring pet peeves lies in the continuing use of facsimile machines by medical and education professionals. See  To this day, patients receive a copy of a faxed document containing blood test results, because the testing company does not always have a digital connection with a doctor’s office.  Even digitally savvy Penn State still relies on faxed expense receipts in many instances.

Never underestimate the cost, hassle, delay and waste when a fax transmission is required.  This 1960s technology combines a slow speed optical scanner with a very slow speed analog modem.  At a time when we measure digital transmission speed in the millions and even billions of bits per second, most fax machines transmit at a rate of 14,400 bits per second, or less.  It can take one minute or more to transmit one page of text and diagrams even as we have grown accustomed to digital bit rates streaming 30 or more high definition video frames per second.

How can such a dichotomy in applied technologies persist?  Put another way, why do we tolerate the continuing use of analog technology that slows the transmission of essential medical data, such as covid-19 test results, to 1960s performance levels?

The answer lies in cost and inertia.  Converting to a digital, high speed data sharing network presents a major inconvenience that no one wants to handle, despite the near immediate benefits.  The possibility exists that doctors’ and universities’ offices might have to deal with days of being virtually incommunicado. The actual out of pocket cost for the conversion pales in comparison to the long term efficiency gains.

Perhaps this awful pandemic will convince decision makers to approve long overdue information processing and telecommunications upgrades.  Why compound the time needed to secure an appointment to take a covid-19 test with avoidable delays in receiving the results?