Will Wireless IT Rescue Healthcare?

WASHINGTON — Much of the recent discussion about health IT has focused on digitizing patients’ medical records, but a string of experts and advocates here at a policy conference on Capitol Hill said that wireless, Internet-enabled technologies hold a more sweeping potential for cutting health costs and improving the quality of care.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, who has also worked extensively with the United Nations and other groups to promote IT and healthcare policy, said that healthcare has lagged stubbornly behind other industries in warming up to technology.

“The tech industry, in the 40 years I’ve been associated with it, has seen the transformation of just about every other industry, other than healthcare,” said Barrett, who serves as chairman of the UN’s Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development.

Barrett described the decades-old debate in Washington over healthcare reform as an exercise in “squeezing the balloon,” where policy makers debate various schemes for reapportioning the burden of exorbitant healthcare costs without ever getting at the heart of the issue.

“We need to get out of the debate over cost and get into the debate over how to get better care to the customer,” Barrett said. “The job is to keep them out of the hospital.”

Today’s policy forum, hosted by the think tank the New America Foundation and CTIA, the trade association for the wireless industry, was broadly about the application of wireless technology to the healthcare industry. Wireless broadband is seen by many the most practical avenue to delivering the Internet to rural and remote areas.

In healthcare, today’s speakers look to wireless technology to enable remote monitoring of patients with chronic illnesses and provide access to specialists for people who might live hundreds of miles from a large hospital facility.

CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent touted the “infinite possibilities and solutions that mobile broadband can provide for the healthcare industry.”

The panel comes on the heels of the economic stimulus package, where Congress allocated billions of dollars for health IT initiatives.

Barrett made an emphatic plea to the policymakers involved in the debate to move away from tweaks to the cost burden for healthcare and fundamentally rethink the goals of the system, which he described as “average at best.”

“I love technology, but unless it’s combined with the right policy, you never get the right outcome,” he said.

Several of the speakers echoed Barrett’s concerns with the perverse incentives of the healthcare system that run counter to telemedicine and remote monitoring.

“We have a system that rewards [sending] people to the hospital,” said David Aylward, director of the COMCARE Emergency Response Alliance, a group involved with the technology used by first responders.

The speakers talked up the promise of mobile broadband networks, particularly with major carriers’ moving ahead with their plans for 4G networks, but they look at the potential of wireless technology in healthcare as much larger than the Web alone. Just as advocates of smart grid technologies look to a new class of networked devices that could connect to the grid and modulate energy usage accordingly, today’s presenters showcased an array of network-enabled equipment that could relay a patients’ vital signs or other information to a doctor in a remote facility.

According to Barrett, the most powerful constituencies involved in the healthcare system, where hundreds of billions of dollars change hands every year, remain opposed to disruptive wireless technologies. The elderly and patients with chronic conditions — those who could benefit the most from wireless healthcare technology — account for about 80 percent of the country’s medical costs, the speakers said. Without addressing the costs of providing coverage for that 80 percent, Barrett said that policymakers won’t make a dent in the overall costs of care.

Jonathan Adelstein, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, said the agency is moving toward a policy program that will promote health IT. The FCC last week took a step toward certifying a new class of radio medical devices, and that it would continue to rigorous testing to ensure the reliability of wireless networks used for medical applications.

“You need more reliable connections for watching a CAT scan than you do for watching a cat do back flips on YouTube,” Adelstein said.

Last week, President Obama nominated Adelstein to head the Rural Utilities Service, an agency within the Department of Agriculture that oversees telecommunications issues in rural areas. The stimulus bill allocated $2.5 billion for RUS to promote rural broadband, which will largely be driven by wireless technologies.

CTIA is planning to launch a series of initiatives to promote the use of wireless technology in healthcare at its annual trade show next week in Las Vegas.

Boasting that the industry he represents makes the “most efficient commercial use of spectrum in the world,” Largent appealed for progressive policies to make more of the airwaves available for wireless communications companies.

To that end, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, introduced a bill last week that would require government agencies to conduct a thorough inventory of government and commercial spectrum allotments as a first step toward a more efficient spectrum policy.

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