FCC Broadband Plan Advocates Mobile Medical Apps, Electronic Health Records

The FCC has presented its National Broadband Plan, which advocates bringing affordable broadband access to more Americans, and also suggests that more broadband can help boost health care IT in the United States. Specifically, the FCC is claiming that increased broadband to physicians and hospitals will help transmit increasingly larger files, such as medical imaging, and will help promote the development of tools such as smartphone applications for physicians and patients.

The Federal Communications Commission is advocating smartphone applications for physicians, along with increased broadband connectivity to hospitals and physicians that currently lack the service, as part of its just-revealed National Broadband Plan. The FCC cites the rising need for medical professionals to transmit large files, including medical imaging, as just one reason for its recommendations.

The National Broadband Plan advocates bringing affordable broadband access to a sizable portion of the 93 million Americans who lack a connection, in the hope that such an action will bring the United States more in line with other countries that enjoy broader broadband adoption. The FCC and its executives have spent the past few weeks suggesting that such a plan would translate into concrete societal and economic benefits.

As detailed by the plan, some of those benefits include more advanced health care IT. The full text of the Health Care chapter of the report can be found here.

"Broadband is not a panacea," reads the chapter. "However, there is a developing set of broadband-enabled solutions that can play an important role in the transformation required to address these issues. These solutions, usually grouped under the name health information technology, offer the potential to improve health care outcomes while simultaneously controlling costs and extending the reach of the limited pool of health care professionals."

The National Broadband Plan recommends that "appropriate incentives" be created for the use of e-care technologies by the health care industry, including "new payment platforms to drive adoption of applications proven to be effective" and the promotion of pilot projects for those technologies.

"Large-scale private pilots of e-care such as the Connected Care Telehealth Program in Colorado and the Community Partnerships and Mobile Telehealth to Transform Research in Elder Care should similarly consult with HHS [Health and Human Services] and share valuable lessons learned," the report reads. "For pilots that meet HHS's data collection standards, Congress should consider tax breaks or other incentives."

The Plan also advocates "modernizing regulation" with regard to technology solutions such as electronic prescribing, as well as having the FCC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve the use of mobile applications for health monitoring and physician decision-making. Its hypothetical examples include smartphone applications for medical imaging or real-time patient data.

The FCC cites Google and Amazon as companies that have utilized massive amounts of data into technologies or initiatives to further their goals, a model that the organization believes can be equally applied to the healthcare industry in areas such as better treatment evaluations, enhanced public health, "empowered consumers" and improved policy decisions. In order for that data to be easily collected and aggregated, however, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology should "establish common standards and protocols for sharing administrative, research and clinical data, and provide incentives for their use."

According to the FCC's numbers, some 3,600 "small physicians" operate in areas that lack mass-market broadband availability, along with 26 percent of critical access hospitals, 29 percent of rural health clinics, and 33 percent of IHS (Indian Health Service) locations. Moreover, the organization insists, these physicians and institutions will need an increasing amount of broadband in coming years in order to transmit large files such as 3D images; the National Broadband Plan estimates that single-physician practices currently need 4 megabits per second, while large medical centers require up to 1,000 megabits per second.

To help alleviate this situation, the FCC is recommending that an existing Internet Access Fund be replaced with a Health Care Broadband Access Fund, and that a Health Care Broadband Infrastructure Fund be established to subsidize broadband for health care locations.

Any such broad-based plan, however, will doubtlessly initiate several rounds of jockeying between government, telecommunications companies, and private industry. In January, AT&T told the FCC that it would need to ditch its land-line infrastructure in order to help Congress meet its goal of extending broadband access to the entire American populace; one can surmise that health care companies, confronted with these FCC recommendations, may use the opportunity to push forward their own requirements. The FCC has also signaled that it may expand its regulatory powers over Internet service, a move that carriers ranging from AT&T to Verizon and Time Warner Cable have all protested as detrimental to their ability to invest in broadband networks.