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Help Wanted: FCC Seeks Health Care Director

The Federal Communications Commission is scaling up its efforts to support the application of broadband and mobile technologies to health care with new rules on spectrum and the establishment of a new position to coordinate the agency's health care efforts across the government, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced on Monday in a speech at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington.

Earlier this month, the FCC finalized long-standing plans to set aside a swath of spectrum to support wireless transmission of data between sensors attached to patients and medical devices, making the United States the first country with dedicated medical spectrum. These so-called Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs) are designed to operate over relatively short range, in hospitals, nursing homes, and other clinical settings. There are also some home monitoring applications for MBAN spectrum, although medical data collected on home-based devices would need to be sent to a hospital or doctor's office by a separate broadband connection.

With the MBAN spectrum in place, Genachowski announced the FCC would take steps to encourage private industry to develop remote monitoring applications, including an order to change the rules for licensing spectrum for testing purposes, and an order reforming a program that gives grants to rural health care providers. This change would allow groups of rural hospitals to pool their applications for access to funds to improve broadband access and adopt electronic health records.

The agency also plans to prioritize international spectrum harmonization, to encourage other countries to use compatible spectrum in any medical networks they develop, in order to allow for "medically safe cross-border patient travel." Genachowski has already held discussions with European and Mexican regulators on this issue.

These actions are among the first concrete results of the mHealth Task Force, which was launched in June as an outgrowth of an FCC meeting involving technology companies, physicians, hospital administrators, and government officials. Among other things, they've expanded the term mHealth from its original application to mobile health technologies to include any communications and computer technology used in delivery of patient care.

According to a draft report of the task force, investment in mHealth devices is a growth area for the U.S. economy, with more than $750 million in venture capital investment in wireless devices, software, and sensors in 2012.

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