mHealth: Just What The Doctor Ordered

It is now believed that an American child born today could live to the ripe old age of 150. From wearable mobile devices that track physical activity and smartphones that measure and report blood sugar levels, groundbreaking progress is underway at the nexus of health care and mobile innovation to vastly improve both the quality and quantity of our lives.

This week I testified at the U.S. Congress before a House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on harnessing these wireless technology innovations for the health care industry. The possibilities are virtually limitless at this still-early stage of mHealth: Voxiva sends regular text messages sharing tips and reminders with expectant mothers via its Text4Baby program, HealthCrowd helps reduce hospital readmissions by improving daily self-care, InfieldHealth delivers care via mobile as patients transition from hospital to home and Supermechanical's Twine wireless sensors - among other things -- can help caregivers track the movements and medication habits of elderly or infirm family members.

The potential cost savings from these applications are equally transformative. The FCC's mHealth Task Force found that wireless and remote access to health records and electronic prescriptions alone could save $29 billion over the next decade.

Wireless innovation already plays a significant role in our nation's health and wellness. One-third of U.S. smartphone users turn to their mobile device to track things like diet and exercise. For Americans under the age of 35 that number rises to 60 percent. There are 40,000 apps and counting in the broad mHealth category, and venture capitalists are investing three-quarters of a billion dollars in early-stage mobile health apps and devices.

Fully realizing the potential of mHealth requires a supportive atmosphere in Washington. By its very nature, mobile entrepreneurship and development is fast and fluid. Our federal regulatory structure can show it too can move quickly, and find the appropriate balance between thoughtful oversight and the nimble action this fast-moving innovation community requires to maintain the forward momentum.

Government can help by providing mHealth innovators with four key certainties:
  • Clear understanding of where regulation begins and ends;
  • Common sense and affordable approval processes;
  • Timely, cohesive, and coordinated decisions across government reflective of the short development cycle for mobile apps; and
  • Fairness when it comes to taxes on wireless services and applications.

From patients to programmers, all parties benefit from clear guidance from the government. When, for example, does a health and wellness app become a regulated clinical tool? The old silos- medical devices regulated at the FDA, communications devices at the FCC--are blurring. A clear delineation of jurisdiction is needed to preserve the incentive to innovate. Equally vital is ensuring these approval processes are measured in months, not years.

Policymakers also need to ensure there is sufficient wireless spectrum and private capital investment to build the powerful, reliable and scalable networks required to advance mHealth.
The FCC is hard at work advancing innovative auctions aimed at making more spectrum available. It is imperative that these auctions are open and inclusive, so all Americans who want to take advantage of wireless health progress have the ability to do so.

Each of us can personalize this progress. Two years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Our family was very fortunate that she was admitted to a clinical trial pursuing the holy grail of diabetes research: the artificial pancreas. Mobile innovation is at the center of this effort--from the wireless sensors in her hospital room to the mobile glucose monitor she now wears in her body. Her team is made up of endocrinologists and research nurses, but also software coders, applications developers, algorithm writers and network engineers--all pushing together toward what would be nothing short of a revolution in diabetes management.

This is the future of American health care. We all have a personal stake in speeding its progress. This is not about government stepping away. Rather it is an opportunity for government to 'lean in' and demonstrate that it can act judiciously, quickly and with the understanding that innovation is born of many things, including a healthy dose of humility when it comes to the role of regulation.