In May 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed an unprecedented ruling that made the United States the first country in the world to dedicate a specific spectrum of bandwidth to medical body area networks (MBANs), paving the way for increased innovation in wireless health devices.
MBAN technology consists of small, disposable sensors that capture real-time clinical information, such as body temperature and respiratory function, and send the data wirelessly to the nurses’ central monitoring station. MBANs free patients from the wires that would normally tether them to the hospital bed and allow clinicians to monitor patients wherever they are. With a dedicated wireless bandwidth spectrum for secure transmission of data from the patient to the clinician, medical device companies now have more flexibility to develop reliable, innovative wireless medical devices.
[Here is a video developed by Philips Healthcare that provides a succinct explanation of MBANs.]
This wasn’t the FCC’s first step in advancing wireless health care, or “mHealth.” In 2010, it released the “National Broadband Plan,” which laid out a strategy to expand the use of health IT solutions in hospital systems. But the MBAN ruling did signify a major push by the FCC towards universal mHealth adoption.
Shortly after the ruling, FCC Chairman Julian Genachowski held a summit with leaders in wireless health technology to discuss the obstacles and opportunities facing the adoption of mHealth in the U.S. The result of this summit was the creation of the mHealth Task Force. This “task force”, which consists of industry, academic and government members, was formed to draft a recommendations report for the FCC and other agencies to accelerate the adoption of mHealth in the United States.
The mHealth Task Force released the final report in September at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). The main goal listed in the report was that “by 2017 mHealth, wireless health and e‐Care solutions will be routinely available as part of best practices for medical care”.
The recommendations outlined in the report were organized under five supporting goals:
- Goal 1: FCC should continue to play a leadership role in advancing mobile health adoption.
- Goal 2: Federal agencies should increase collaboration to promote innovation, protect patient safety, and avoid regulatory duplication.
- Goal 3: The FCC should build on existing programs and link programs when possible to expand broadband access for healthcare.
- Goal 4: The FCC should continue efforts to increase capacity, reliability, interoperability, and RF safety of mHealth technologies.
- Goal 5: Industry should support continued investment, innovation, and job creation in the growing mobile health sector.
Out of the 25 recommendations made in the report, Chairman Genachowski stated that the FCC will act on the following:
- Wireless health test beds: The FCC will propose an order by the end of the year to streamline experimental licensing rules to promote and encourage the creation of wireless health “test beds” to permit easier testing of mHealth technologies.
- Health care broadband networks: The FCC will propose an order by the end of the year to comprehensively reform and modernize the Rural Health Care Program, to allow networks of hospitals and health care facilities to jointly apply for program funds, to boost broadband capacity, enable electronic health records and improve data collection.
- International MBAN spectrum: The FCC’s International Bureau will work with FCC counterparts in other countries to encourage them to make spectrum available for MBANs and to discuss possible spectrum harmonization efforts to allow for medically safe cross-border patient travel and better economies of scale for device makers.
- Outreach plan: The FCC will develop and execute a health care stakeholder outreach plan to promote further collaboration between the FCC and the health care sector.
- Health Care Director: The FCC will recruit a permanent FCC Health Care Director, a position that functions as the central point of contact to external groups on all health-related issues.
Wondering what progress the FCC has made on these recommendations? So were we, so we took a look. Below are the FCC’s related accomplishments in the past four months:
- Healthcare Connect Fund: As proposed, the FCC reformed and modernized the Rural Health Care Program by creating the Healthcare Connect Fund. This new fund provides financial support to eligible health care providers (HCPs) for broadband services used for health care purposes and establishes a new pilot program to test ways of supporting broadband connections for skilled nursing facilities.
- FCC launched a new health care-dedicated website: The FCC created www.fcc.gov/health, for the first time enabling people to find information on all of the FCC’s health care-related work in one place.
- Health Care Director job posting: The FCC posted a new position for a Director of Health Care Initiatives. The job description states the role of this person would be to “lead the agency’s efforts in facilitating and promoting communications technologies and services that improve the quality of health care for all citizens and help reduce health care costs; facilitating the availability of medical devices that use spectrum; and ensuring hospitals and other health care facilities have required connectivity.” The posting expired on January 7, 2013 and no Health Care Director has been named as of yet.
The FCC has taken several important steps in implementing the task force’s recommendations, but there’s still a long way to go to reach the task force’s goal of making mHealth technology routinely available as part of medical best practices in 2017. We believe that mHealth is vital to improving the efficiency and quality of health care and are rooting for widespread mHealth adoption. We’ll be watching the FCC’s progress closely and will continue to keep you updated.
Image source: www.fcc.gov