FCC working with startups, researchers to accelerate mHealth

The MedMinder connected pill dispenser, powered by MedApps

Trying to give the still nascent mHealth sector a motivational kick in the pants, the Federal Communications Commission has begun working directly with startups and universities to help bring new wireless telemedicine and health care technologies to market faster.

On Wednesday the FCC convened an mHealth summit in Washington, D.C., bringing together not only some of the big gorillas of telemedicine — Philips(s phg), Medtronic(s mdt) and Qualcomm(s qcom) — but also several mHealth startups focusing on specific health applications: TheCarrot, MedApps, Telcare and WellDoc. The FCC put those companies in a room with the big regulatory agencies in health care: the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs.

The FCC then tasked the whole bunch to provide actionable recommendations to overcome the technological obstacles and red tape preventing mobile data from revolutionizing the health care field.

“We know there are barriers to harnessing this technology for the greater good — interoperability, reliability, connectivity, privacy, and security, just to name a few,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in his prepared remarks before the summit. “Today, we’d like to hear from you on these and other barriers to rapid deployment and find ways to collaborate to help accelerate innovation in this sector.”

New spectrum for mHealth innovators

Genachowski also revealed that this summer the FCC plans to release new experimental licenses to universities, research institutions and other nonprofits, giving them instant access to the usually high-regulated airwaves. Those institutions could use those airwaves to more quickly develop, test and commercialize new machine-to-machine (M2M) medical technologies.

The licenses will span the spectrum bands already designated for medical use, and the FCC will also create “innovation zones,” areas where device manufacturers and app developers can test their technologies over closed mHealth frequencies without a license.

Last month the FCC created a new band for medical body area networks (MBANs), which will allow vendors to untether monitoring equipment from cables and wires and create hospital and home sensor nets that keep in constant contact with patients. Last November the FCC also designated airwaves for medical micropower networks, which would connect devices embedded within the body that replace damaged nerves. The goal of the project is to use new medical research breakthroughs and wireless communications to restore sensation and even movement to damaged limbs and muscles.

Special attention placed on startups

The inclusion of startups in the summit was particularly interesting, since they run the gamut of mHealth services and in many cases focus on consumer-facing applications rather than ones targeted at the health care industry.

TheCarrot’s health portal

For instance, TheCarrot has created Web and mobile portals designed to let consumers take their health into their own hands. The service allows customers to create their own dieting, exercise and even smoking-cessation regimes. It aggregates data from medical and fitness sensors and gives a big-picture view of the user’s overall health. Customers can then share that information with their doctors, personal trainers, families and individual friends.

MedApps provides a service called HealthAir, which aggregates data from different medical sensors and devices and presents it in usable format by patients and doctors. Telcare is devoted entirely to creating cellular-enabled blood glucose meters. Meanwhile, WellDoc has developed a series of applications that help patients manage chronic diseases such as diabetes.