FCC's Matthew Quinn: mHealth needs steady guidance, innovation

In April, the Federal Communications Commission selected the agency's first Director of Healthcare Initiatives, Matthew Quinn, to be the FCC's leader and central point of contact to external groups on all health-related issues. The agency's job description states that the role of the Director of Health Care Initiatives is 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 search to find Quinn (pictured right) was in direct response to a September 2012 recommendation by the mHealth Task Force that the new position of FCC Director of Healthcare Initiatives should provide a "single point of contact for addressing healthcare related barriers and opportunities." He came to the FCC from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). 

As the Director of Healthcare Initiatives, Quinn will serve for a maximum of four years--which is the exact timeframe the agency has set out for meeting its ambitious goals. Last year, the mHealth Task Force convened by the FCC established an overarching goal that "by 2017 mHealth, wireless health and e‐Care solutions will be routinely available as part of best practices for medical care."

FierceMobileHealthcare spoke with Quinn about his new position and the FCC's role as a regulatory agency in enabling the growth and adoption of mobile health technologies.

FMH: You've now been on the job about four months. How is it going? 

Quinn: It's going great. Over the past few months, I've been drinking from a fire hose. There's so much going on here. I counted up the other day that I've participated in 30 odd meetings of the FDASIA Workgroup, so that's been a big focus of my time. A lot of my time is also establishing and building on the relationships with the folks in the other agencies. So, it's been a busy time that has flown by in no time.   

FMH: On the FDASIA front, what is your/FCC's involvement as it relates to the FDASIA Workgroup?  

Quinn: I'm the FCC lead and have been the FCC representative on all the FDASIA Workgroup calls, as well as meetings with FDA and ONC and other folks. The two main things from our perspective are: one, making sure that it's clear both inside and outside government what FCC's core role is, which is regulating spectrum but also encouraging innovation. And, the other piece of it is, as one of three signatory agencies on a report of recommendations that will be going back to Congress, we want to make sure that the report is on time and is of high quality. It needs to be a solid report that contributes to innovation and protects safety for the full range of health IT.   

FMH: When you look at the FDASIA Workgroup and how it is set up, how do you see FCC's role as differentiated from FDA or ONC?  

Quinn: Our role, and I think this is fairly obvious, is that we are not the lead agency for health IT strategy or regulation of mobile medical apps. But, we have a specific and I think increasingly important role in health IT regulation, especially as we move from wired products to wireless products and from manual monitoring to remote monitoring as technologies like telemedicine and [Medical Body Area Networks] become more pervasive. There's a role here for FCC both in terms of allocation and use of spectrum as well as a product approval process that has to synch with what else is going on there. 

I've only worked in government for about six years. Something that I find really interesting, fun and always eye opening, is how difficult it is without specific effort for everyone in government to know what's going on. I spend every Thursday afternoon at the FDA just working with those folks, and usually on a call with ONC. The process of participating in 30 odd meetings with ONC as part of one of their federal advisory committees has been really valuable because we discuss what I'm thinking about and what they're thinking about. One of the other things that I participate in is the HIMSS Federal Health Community. This is an ad hoc monthly meeting of feds that they host on a particular topic or issue, and it's just a good opportunity to connect and discuss.

FMH: How do you see mobile medical apps in terms of the potential opportunities and challenges?

Quinn: Let me put on my AHRQ hat for a second, where two of my key areas of research were the intersection of new care models like patient-centered medical, accountable care and health IT, and the other was usability and acceptability. I really think the key for these technologies is integration into new care models. Trying to collect information and enabling the connection between people and the healthcare system and other resources that could be valuable to them in managing their healthcare, I think is so important. And, at the same time, reducing the burden of things that could be done by computers or by patients is the only way that we're going to be able to accommodate all of this. 

It takes 7.4 hours per day for a primary care physician just to deliver recommended preventive services to patients, which doesn't leave a lot of time for other things. This really speaks to the opportunity of mobile medical apps. And, then, we know that patient engagement is the new vital sign. We know that when patients are activated that they are more compliant and engaged with their providers, and ask questions. By their doing all of these things, it really can contribute to better health and healthcare. 

So, I'm a huge advocate. But, you've got to ensure that it's not just the patients who are excited about these technologies. They must fit into the workflows, the models, and the reimbursements for the broader healthcare enterprise.  

FMH: In your position as Director of Health Care Initiatives at FCC, what do you see as your role in helping in the growth and adoption of mHealth? 

Quinn: This really echoes some of the recommendations of the FDASIA Workgroup. On one side of it is providing the guidance, or working with others to provide the guidance, so that healthcare organizations can implement wireless and mHealth solutions in their enterprise. Today, I don't think that your average community hospital would have a very good grasp on, for instance, what the interference issues would be if they had two or three MBANs and lots of other wireless things going on. That's why wireless testbeds are so important making it easy for healthcare institutions to test those things ahead of time.  

The other thing is I'm a huge believer in timely and relevant technical guidance for industry. What I mean by that is providing answers to questions or putting out guidance on aspects of development that will help move the industry forward, or at least keep people from, for example, trying to get a product approved to use spectrum that's already been allocated for something else. It happens. And, that's time wasted for products that could go to market if those folks knew where to play, what to do, and what standards are available. 

FMH: Earlier this year, the FCC announced that the $400 million Healthcare Connect Fund would be available to providers in order to create and expand telemedicine networks nationwide. How is that initiative going?

Quinn: One of the key aspects of the Healthcare Connect Fund is that its foundation is consortia. So, in the past, in order to apply for funds each individual healthcare organization had to fill out forms, get bids, figure out what they were going to, and know what they were going to ask for. This was not easy. We're trying to lower the barriers around making it hard to apply. The pilot program and now the Healthcare Connect Fund are built on the idea that consortia are going to be valuable. 

As you bring these organizations together, there is a natural alignment of resources and goals. Consortia can include entities that are for profit, such as doctor offices, that aren't eligible for the funds themselves from the Healthcare Connect Fund. But, these entities as being part of consortia would really benefit from their inclusion. 

The other thing that folks don't realize is that the Healthcare Connect Fund isn't just rural organizations. At the end of three years, consortia need to be majority rural, but that really provides the opportunity, for example, for an academic medical center to build out a telemedicine network that includes both rural and urban healthcare organizations.

The pilot sites were able to transition to the Healthcare Connect Fund starting on July 1. And, on January 1, 2014, will be the new sites. 

Editor's note: The interviewed has been shortened and condensed for clarity.