Need a comprehensive approach to broadband-based health care? Take two aspirin and call the FCC, or Congress, or the FDA, or HHS, or the States, or . . .

In the health care chapter of its National Broadband Plan (“NBP”), the FCC envisions nationwide availability and use of electronically gathered, exchanged, and archived medical information to improve individual and public health care. Getting there from here (noting that the United States is at the back of the pack within the developed world when it comes to electronic health care) will require a vast, coordinated effort on the part of many different players. Looking at the big picture, the NBP identifies three major gaps:  adoption, information utilization, and connectivity. It goes on to formulate a comprehensive plan to fix all three before apparently realizing that the FCC only has jurisdiction over one – connectivity.  Undeterred, the NBP creates a “honey do” list for Congress, the States, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

Having put the rest of the government on the right track, the FCC also sets itself a few tasks:

  • Establish Health Care Broadband Access and Infrastructure Funds within the Rural Health Care Program. The FCC proposes to establish two health care broadband funds, a “Health Care Broadband Access Fund” and a “Health Care Broadband Infrastructure Fund.” The Health Care Broadband Access Fund would replace the existing Internet Access Fund, supporting bundles of services for eligible health care providers. It would be available to both rural and urban health care providers, based on need.  The Health Care Broadband Infrastructure Fund would subsidize network deployment to health care facilities where existing networks are insufficient. 
  • Allow broader participation in the Rural Health Care Program. The FCC plans to authorize participation in both funds by long-term care facilities, off-site administrative offices, data centers and other similar locations. To further expand the reach of the programs, the FCC recommends that Congress make funding accessible to private for-profit institutions that serve particularly vulnerable populations. The FCC also proposes to increase participation by increasing the amount of support and simplifying the application process.
  • Establish outcome-based performance measures.  To protect against fraud, waste, and abuse, the FCC proposes that participating institutions will have to meet outcome-based performance measures to qualify for the above funding, on the model of Health and Human Services’ “meaningful use” criteria.  
  • Publish a biennial Health Care Broadband Status Report. This report will discuss the state of health care broadband connectivity, review industry trends, describe government programs and make reform recommendations. The FCC will analyze the progress of its own programs and, we hypothesize, give Congress, the States, and other federal agencies letter grades for performance and effort.
  • Collaborate with the Food and Drug Administration on regulation for medical devices. The FCC seeks to address and clarify the regulatory approach in areas where communications and medicine converge, such as medical devices that use radio frequencies. Such devices might include wearable sensors for monitoring a patient or smartphone applications that give fetal heartbeat and contraction information to an obstetrician. The FCC proposes, within the 120 days following release of the NBP, to seek formal public input and conduct – wait for it – workshops.

In a similar vein, on Friday, March 19, 2010, the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture released a Notice of Funds Availability and Grant Application Deadlines for its annual Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program application window.  This program primarily funds end-user equipment used for distance learning and telemedicine, such as video conferencing or teleradiology equipment. Therefore, in NBP terms, it addresses the adoption gap.  (The deadline for applications for funding from this NOFA is May 18, 2010.)

[Blogmeister note: This is one in a series of posts describing the range of regulatory and societal areas in which the National Broadband Plan could, and likely will, affect us all. Click here to find other posts in this series.]