Interview: FCC's new health director Matt Quinn

By Jonah Comstock
11:51 am
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Matthew QuinnSome time last month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) quietly filled its long-vacant Director of Healthcare Initiatives position, responding to a call made last September by its mHealth task force. The FCC's appointee, Matthew Quinn, is no stranger to healthcare innovation. With a background in two previous government agencies and a number of large and small healthcare companies, Quinn brings a range of experience to the role. It's recently been announced that one of his first duties will be to advise an HHS workgroup on mobile health regulation. MobiHealthNews caught up with Quinn last week on Day 6 of his new job.

We were under the impression you had worked with Matthew Holt at Health 2.0, but it predated that?

In 1999 or 2000 we started a personal health record company called i-Beacon. It lasted for about nine months and the economy started falling apart, but it was a great opportunity to meet Matthew, and he's a guy who just has unbelievable perspective on healthcare. I learned a ton from him.

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Could you start off by giving us an overview of how you got to where you are, what your background in healthcare is, and how those experiences are going to be helpful to you in your new job?

I probably have taken the road less travelled to get here, but I think it's a good thing. I came to government in 2007. I started in the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality (AHRQ). It's part of HHS and it's focused on health services research. I joined the health IT team there as a special expert and my role really was to promote research projects that were relevant to industry and also to policy makers and academia, really to bridge the gaps. One of my key areas of focus was on aligning the goals of health reform with the use of health IT, so [determining] what information models and standards and workflow changes were needed to support patient-centered medical homes and other models of care envisioned in the Affordable Care Act.

One of my projects there was a report on certified EHR vendor practices and promises with regard to usability or lack thereof and this really led me to go to NIST [the National Institute of Standards and Technology] for the last few years to focus on this specific issue. We held a few workshops in coordination with FDA and ONC and other folks really to provide technical guidance and to hear best practices from elsewhere on how to improve the usability of not just EHR but health IT apps in general. And some of this technical guidance was included in the Meaningful Use Stage 2 certification requirements. NIST is not a regulatory organization, but I really like the model NIST uses as a convener, bringing people together to help solve problems. I think it's a good model that allows industry to make some progress before regulatory groups like the FDA or whoever just make the rules.

I realized really bad things can happen when entrepreneurs and policy makers aren't speaking the same language, when they don't have a Rosetta Stone. So one of the things I did at AHRQ was I attended the Health 2.0 accelerator meetings. I remember a webinar I did for them: AHRQ had done a meta-review of research on consumer health IT tools and it was to see whether there was evidence that use of these tools could impact quality, safety, efficiency, effectiveness of healthcare. And research was very positive about these tools. I think there were 55 or 56 people on the call. I asked how many folks had heard of these studies, and only a few folks had. These were all people who were trying to communicate the value of consumer health IT tools, so this would be great in helping them sell these to some insurer or venture person, but they hadn't heard about this research. So making those connections is something I really enjoy that makes you want to be a public servant and get up in the morning and do that. I'm trying to take the experiences I've had in the private sector and the public sector and make those connections.

What is the FCC's role in healthcare and how do you see that evolving in the next couple of years during your tenure?

My job is to coordinate what the FCC's doing and then to work with other federal agencies around these specific initiatives. But also, it's thinking ahead. One of the things that I think is really profound, is in the past two years, the movement from traditional desktop and laptop apps in hospitals, specifically EHRs, to mobile application access to these core clinical devices has gone from single digits to, last I saw, at least 70 percent of healthcare systems have mobile access to those apps. That's amazing. And the guidance and the issues, frankly, that this opens up for just those systems are tremendous.

We're seeing a real proliferation and a ton of innovation in assistive technology, medical micro-power networks, and implantable medical devices. This is all stuff that's operating on spectrum that's going to potentially be changing as a result of some of the initiatives here at FCC and in the private sector. I think one of the key things is ensuring that FCC is at the table and plugged in to places, groups and communities that will ensure the success of the Healthcare Fund and the current initiatives, but also to help us figure out what the appropriate role of the agency is moving forward.

What's your first priority as FCC Healthcare Director? How would you explain or prioritize some of the things that are going on?

At the broadest level, FCC's areas of responsibilities starts with the Rural Health Care Program, including the Healthcare Connect Fund that was launched in December of last year, built on some of the lessons of the pilot project, so we have a new reformed and streamlined Connect Fund. It's more efficient and better in many ways for providers to take advantage of, and it really encourages consortia.

And you know the core areas of responsibility for the FCC are in broadband and spectrum and in updating and understanding the national broadband plan and its implications and the needs of the nation as they move forward for healthcare broadband. So my top priority for this is really just making sure the FCC is plugged in and at the table so we can support the success of these current initiatives, but also think about and plan where these core missions around the broadband spectrum are pertinent and where we need to be cognizant in collaborating with other folks.

In terms of this job itself, how you came to the position and your interest in it -- what drew you to it and any stories about maybe the process itself of joining the FCC?

In a nutshell, it looked like both a good platform to make a difference and a good fit with my background and experience. And I think it's going be a lot of fun. I'll tell you my first week here I've met just some amazing folks at the FCC. Before I applied I talked to a variety of folks in and out of government: Kerry McDermott, who was here before and is now at West [Health Institute], the illustrious Matthew Holt, folks like Rob Kolodner who was the former national coordinator, but really just a guy with great insight on where healthcare and health IT is going, Robert Jarrin from Qualcomm, John White from AHRQ, and Edna Boone at HIMSS.

I talked to all these folks and they said "Go for it, Matt. This is great for you because this is a lot of coordinating, collaborating, communicating and that's what you're good at." And I really am excited about the role that mobile devices and broadband have in supporting not just more stuff on the market, but -- We're in this era of transformation in our healthcare system. This is improving health not only for individual people, but also in communities and across the country. This is leading to the unprecedented ability of people to both report data, or contribute data, but also to access it to make better decisions. How well is this being integrated into the way that healthcare runs today? All of that's in flux and there are a lot of policy, technical, and marketplace issues to work out before we get there.

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