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Why the Healthcare Industry Cares About the Spectrum Shortage
By Steve Largent

Mobile health (mHealth) applications have transformed virtually every aspect of the healthcare landscape in America and around the world. Through the burgeoning adoption of mHealth technologies, the medical community and patients are experiencing improved access and quality of care while decreasing costs—the three pillars of healthcare reform. Additionally, mHealth solutions are reducing medical errors, removing geographic and economic disparities, and reinforcing consumer-focused and personalized healthcare for millions of people. Yet the future of mHealth is threatened by the reality of an impending spectrum shortage that could impede the wireless networks’ ability to deliver life-saving data and dampen the incredible innovation that is thriving today.

Since almost 90% of Americans with wireless connectivity seek health information online, mobile devices are critical tools in personal health decisions. According to a 2009 Harris Interactive and CTIA—The Wireless Association survey, almost eight in 10 Americans were interested in mHealth solutions. The survey participants believed individuals living in rural areas, chronic disease sufferers who need monitoring, retired and/or Medicare patients, and caregivers would benefit the most from the integration of wireless technology with healthcare. While consumer interest in mHealth is strong, with nearly one in five willing to upgrade their existing mobile plan to participate, 80% of doctors and 89% of specialists said they supported continued investments.

Given the near ubiquity of mobile devices in the United States, mHealth solutions can provide even more effective, affordable, and immediate ways for health professionals to administer care and patients to adhere to a treatment regimen. For example, nearly one-half of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with at least one chronic condition, which accounts for more than 75% of every healthcare dollar spent each year. Experts estimate that the remote monitoring of patients with chronic conditions could save $197 billion in direct costs over 25 years by reducing emergency department visits, hospital admissions, length of stay in hospitals, and nursing home costs.

While the cost-effectiveness is clear, mHealth helps the medical community to be more patient focused, which improves access and quality of care. Doctors can evaluate a patient’s condition and consult with specialists around the world in real time, minimizing critical response times, reducing mistakes, and improving diagnoses. Personalized mobile interactions also allow doctors and caregivers to closely yet remotely perform diverse tasks. This may include managing a patient’s condition and recovery progress by ensuring prescription adherence and preventing potentially dangerous drug interactions, administering and charting diets and physical activity, and monitoring glucose levels and blood pressure. Additionally, patients can follow their doctors’ orders more closely and can alert caregivers at the first sign of any complications. 

Despite substantial benefits for patients and healthcare professionals, the looming spectrum shortage threatens to stall new mHealth innovations. Yet the answer is simple: Take the unused or underutilized spectrum from other organizations, such as the broadcasters and mobile satellite services, and hold an auction so the federal government can receive billions of dollars for this finite resource and put spectrum to a much more productive use. 

To the wireless industry, spectrum is equivalent to lanes on a highway. Cars are like mobile devices, such as cell phones, smartphones, tablets, and wireless Internet cards. In the last 10 years, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of “cars” and the amount of time they’re spending on the “roads.” To meet that demand, our members need more lanes, or spectrum. Otherwise, we’ll have a significant traffic jam. It can be frustrating enough when an e-mail is delayed, but for the mHealth patient or doctor who is waiting for life-saving data, timeliness is vital.

Even though the U.S. wireless industry is a more efficient user of spectrum than any other country in the world, the explosive growth in demand for mobile broadband services will quickly surpass supply. From July to December 2010, U.S. carriers delivered more than 388 billion MB of data. That’s the equivalent of delivering two times the entire Library of Congress’ book catalog for wireless consumers every hour of every day of the year. Well-respected third-party organizations have reported that mobile data traffic will continue to increase, with some estimates of more than 40 to 50 times our current usage by 2015.

As Americans continue to benefit from the marriage between wireless technology and healthcare, it is essential that the reallocation of wireless spectrum becomes a national priority. While we have already received strong bipartisan support from the president to congressional members from across the country, we need your help. Please join us and tell your U.S. representatives and senators that you support getting more spectrum for the U.S. wireless industry so that all Americans can benefit from the fantastic potential of mHealth. In turn, the wireless and healthcare industries will continue to work together to develop innovative products and services that improve care and access while reducing costs.

— Steve Largent is president and CEO of CTIA—The Wireless Association.