The Federal Communications Commission is planning to launch a variety of initiatives to spur the development and adoption of broadband-enabled healthcare devices and applications, with the overriding goal of establishing mobile health technology as an industry best practice by 2017.
Speaking at an event marking the release of a new report outlining recommendations for advancing mobile healthcare applications, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski touted the potential for intelligent, broadband-enabled devices to expand the range of services available to patients and ultimately improve the quality of care.
"You can look at virtually every vertical in the United States and the fact is that wired and wireless broadband is transforming that vertical," Genachowski said, citing innovative applications of broadband technology in fields such as education, energy and public safety. "And then of course there's healthcare. And we've seen over the last several years a steady stream of new examples of the ways that broadband technology, particularly wireless technology, can transform medicine."
Drawing on the recommendations of the mHealth report (available in PDF format here), Genachowski said he intends to circulate an order at the FCC to ease the rules for the experimental licenses the agency grants to companies to set up test beds for mobile health technologies before the year-end, a move aimed at expediting the development and commercialization of new devices and applications.
Additionally, Genachowski outlined another order he intends to bring forward to make it easier for hospitals and other healthcare facilities to apply for FCC funding to boost their broadband capacity and transition to electronic medical records through a comprehensive overhaul of the agency's Rural healthcare Program.
The new mHealth report traces back to a summit that the FCC convened in June, bringing together experts from industry, academia and the government to sift through the challenges and opportunities of the nascent mobile health sector. Out of that effort emerged the mHealth Task Force, which drafted the report outlining recommendations to the FCC that was released on Monday at the headquarters of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Genachowski explained that since his confirmation to chair the FCC in 2009, he has positioned broadband as the central issue on the agency's agenda.
The commission has initiated a number of policies in the area of healthcare, including deepening its collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration and allocating spectrum for medical body area networks (MBANs), systems of sensors worn on the body that relay information about the patient to a medical facility.
"Basically, they untether patient at hospitals from the cords that connect them to various monitoring devices," Genachowski said.
But as the FCC pressed ahead with those and other piecemeal initiatives, it became clear that the agency lacked a cohesive action plan for introducing technology into an industry as large and complex as healthcare.
"As we were doing these different pieces we realized that we need to step back and ask ourselves, 'What are the concrete steps that we can do to accelerate the opportunities of mHealth?'" Genachowski said.
The task force identified several barriers to greater deployment and adoption of mobile health applications, including a shortage of broadband capacity sufficient to support the swift transfer of images and other data-intensive files.
The group also called for a closer partnership among the FCC and the other departments and agencies involved in administering the nation's healthcare policies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in the midst of a rulemaking process to determine the eligibility of health IT products for Medicare reimbursement.
"The most important thing to me is more mobile broadband spectrum," said Robert Jarrin, Qualcomm's senior director of government affairs and a co-chairman of the task force. "That to me is the biggest priority. The biggest obstacle is reimbursement."
The report also cited issues concerning interoperability and standardization. Those concerns resonated with Genachowski, who said that he is directing the FCC's International Bureau to appeal to foreign communications officials to dedicate more spectrum for MBANs and to develop harmonization strategies to ensure that the systems will work when patients travel across borders.
The FCC is also looking to hire a permanent healthcare director to spearhead its activities on all fronts of healthcare policy and serve as the primary point of contact for all outside groups working on health IT issues.
That figures to be a full-time job as industry players, responding to provisions signed into law with the 2009 economic stimulus package encouraging health IT development, have been ramping up their research and development in what looks to be a sector poised for rapid growth.
"From an industry standpoint there is incredible interest right now," said Douglas Trauner, CEO of Health Analytic Services and a co-chairman of the task force. "There's a growing amount of investment taking place in healthcare IT today that wasn't taking place two, three, four years ago."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.