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Jennifer S. Geetter advises global life sciences, health care and informatics clients on legal issues attendant to biomedical innovation, research compliance, financial relationship management, digital health practices, and global privacy and data security laws. Jennifer represents a broad range of clients. Read Jennifer Geetter's full bio.

Throughout 2017, the health care and life sciences industries experienced a widespread proliferation of digital health innovation that presents challenges to traditional notions of health care delivery and payment as well as product research, development and commercialization for both long-standing and new stakeholders. At the same time, lawmakers and regulators made meaningful progress toward modernizing the existing legal framework in a way that will both adequately protect patients and consumers and support and encourage continued innovation, but their efforts have not kept pace with what has become the light speed of innovation. As a result, some obstacles, misalignment and ambiguity remain.

We are pleased to bring you this review of key developments that shaped digital health in 2017, along with planning considerations and predictions for the digital health frontier in the year ahead.

Read the full Special Report.

Jennifer Geetter and Lisa Schmitz Mazur wrote this bylined article on the regulatory implications of technology-supported devices, resources, and solutions that facilitate health patient-provider interaction. “Health industry regulators are struggling with how to apply the existing privacy regulatory regime, and the permitted uses and disclosures for which they provide, in this new world of healthcare innovation,” the authors wrote.

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On March 23, 2017, the New York Attorney General’s office announced that it has settled with the developers of three mobile health (mHealth) applications (apps) for, among other things, alleged misleading commercial claims. This settlement highlights for mHealth app developers the importance of systematically gathering sufficient evidence to support their commercial claims.

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The Final Rule published by the US Department of Health and Human Services on January 18, 2017, largely avoids major modifications to the Common Rule. However, it specifically addresses creation of biospecimen and data repositories and use of those repositories for secondary research. All stakeholders involved in federally funded research should be aware of the Final Rule’s changes and prepare to implement them.

Read the full article here.

On January 18, 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and 15 other federal agencies issued a final rule overhauling the federal human subjects research regulations known as the “Common Rule.” These are the first revisions to the Common Rule since its original enactment in 1991, and have been in progress since HHS first published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in July 2011. According to the press release accompanying the final rule, HHS made “significant changes” to its most recent proposals (published in September 2015) in response to the 2,100+ public comments they received.

The majority of the Common Rule’s changes and new provisions will go into effect in 2018. We are reviewing the final rule in detail, and a summary of changes and new provisions is forthcoming.

On January 4, 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) submitted a draft final rule to amend the federal human research regulations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These regulations, often referred to as the Common Rule, were originally developed in 1991 and have been adopted by multiple federal departments and agencies. OMB review is the last step before final publication and suggests that HHS is trying to release a final rule before President Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017.

Through its Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), HHS initially published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in July 2011. The Advanced Notice generated significant controversy and OHRP did not publish a notice of proposed rulemaking (Proposed Rule) for over four years, ultimately doing so on September 8, 2015. The Proposed Rule, like its earlier Advanced Notice counterpart, suggested major changes to the Common Rule, including changes to its overall jurisdictional scope, requirements relating to secondary use of biospecimens and individually identifiable information, and the general research review and oversight process.

Since the Proposed Rule’s publication, OHRP has received significant feedback from both industry and expert advisory groups about the proposed changes and their overall impact. While certain proposed changes have been applauded, the Proposed Rule has also generated considerable concern and uncertainty among stakeholders.

The current status of OMB’s review is pending.

On December 7, 2016, the US Congress approved the 21st Century Cures Act (Cures legislation), which is intended to accelerate the “discovery, development and delivery” of medical therapies by encouraging public and private biomedical research investment, facilitating innovation review and approval processes, and continuing to invest and modernize the delivery of health care. The massive bill, however, also served as a vehicle for a variety of other health-related measures, including provisions relating to health information technology (HIT) and related digital health initiatives.  President Barack Obama has expressed support for the Cures legislation and is expected to sign the bill this month.

The HIT provisions of the Cures legislation in general seek to:

  • Reduce administrative and regulatory burdens associated with providers’ use of electronic health records (EHRs)
  • Advance interoperability
  • Promote standards for HIT
  • Curb information blocking
  • Improve patient care and access to health information in EHRs

As public and private payers increasingly move from fee-for-service payments to value-based payment models, with a focus on maximizing health outcomes, population health improvement, and patient engagement, HIT—including EHRs and digital health tools—will be increasingly relied upon to collect clinical data, measure quality and cost effectiveness; assure continuity of care between patients and providers in different locations; and develop evidence-based clinical care guidelines.

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After three government agencies collectively created an online tool to help developers navigate federal regulations impacting mobile health apps, McDermott partner Jennifer Geetter was interviewed by FierceMobileHealthcare on the need for mobile health development tools.

Read the full article from FierceMobileHealthCare.

This week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC or Commission) released an interactive tool (entitled the “Mobile Health Apps Interactive Tool”) that is intended to help developers identify the federal law(s) that apply to apps that collect, create and share consumer information, including health information. The interactive series of questions and answers augments and cross-references existing guidance from the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) that helps individuals and entities—including app developers—understand when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and its rules may apply.  The tool is also intended to help developers determine whether their app is subject to regulation as a medical device by the FDA, or subject to certain requirements under the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) or the FTC’s Health Breach Notification Rule. The Commission developed the tool in conjunction with HHS, FDA and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

Based on the user’s response to ten questions, the tool helps developers determine if HIPAA, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), FTC Act and/or the FTC’s Health Breach Notification Rule apply to their app(s). Where appropriate based on the developer’s response to a particular question, the tool provides a short synopsis of the potentially applicable law and links to additional information from the appropriate federal government regulator.

The first four questions cover a developer’s potential obligations under HIPAA. The first question explores whether an app creates, receives, maintains or transmits individually identifiable health information, such as an IP address. Developers may use the tool’s second, third and fourth questions to assess whether they are a covered entity or a business associate under HIPAA. The tool’s fifth, sixth and seventh questions help developers establish whether their app may be a medical device that the FDA has chosen to regulate.  The final three questions are intended to help users assess the extent to which the developer is subject to regulation by the FTC.

Although the tool provides helpful, straightforward guidance, users will likely need a working knowledge of relevant regulatory principles to successfully use the tool.  For example, the tool asks the user to identify whether the app is “intended for use” for diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or disease prevention, but does not provide any information regarding the types of evidence that the FDA would consider to identify a product’s intended use or the intended use of a mobile app (e.g., statements made by the developer in advertising or oral or written statements). In addition, how specifically an app will be offered to individuals to be used in coordination with their physicians can be dispositive of the HIPAA analysis in ways that are not necessarily intuitive.

The tool provides a starting point for developers to raise their awareness of potential compliance obligations. It also highlights the need to further explore the three federal laws, implementing rules and their exceptions. Developers must be aware of the tool’s limitations—it does not address state laws and is not intended to provide legal advice. In fact, the tool does not provide links to the actual text of the laws or regulations and is clearly aimed at non-lawyers.  Nor does the tool highlight all applicable guidance documents provided on the websites for each federal regulator, which shed additional light on what that regulator has determined is within or outside of its oversight.

At a recent public workshop, Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), announced plans to expand the agency’s use of the Sentinel infrastructure to conduct post-market effectiveness studies.

Sentinel is an electronic surveillance system that aggregates data from electronic medical records, claims and registries that voluntarily participate and allows the agency to track the safety of marketed drugs, biologics and medical devices. As of August 2015, the Sentinel database includes information from 193 million individuals, 4.8 billion instances of prescription dispensing, 5.5 billion unique encounters and 51 million acute inpatient stays.

The FDA currently uses the system to assess post-market safety issues. However, in a February 3, 2016, workshop, Dr. Woodcock announced that the FDA is in the early stages of adapting the Sentinel infrastructure to develop the “Guardian” system, which the agency intends to use to “actively gather information about the performance of regulated medical products” used in health care. At the same workshop, Dr. Steven Anderson of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) described the Guardian system as a parallel system to Sentinel that will rely on the Sentinel infrastructure to assess product effectiveness. According to Dr. Anderson, the FDA is currently assessing the feasibility of using Sentinel to perform effectiveness studies, and over the next five years, intends to develop the system to support a range of clinical trial designs.

The FDA envisions that the Guardian system will help the agency and external researchers quickly and less inexpensively answer questions about the performance of medical products that would otherwise require expensive, time-consuming clinical investigations to assess. The FDA did not specifically address how the agency intends to use the effectiveness data developed using the Guardian system.

The proposed Guardian system represents the FDA’s latest attempt to harness the power of “big data” and to participate in the changes precipitated by digital health strategies and tools to address FDA priorities. In 2014, the FDA launched its openFDA initiative, which gives the general public access to several of the agency’s public data sets (e.g., adverse event reports). Moreover, in December 2015, the FDA launched a beta version of its precisionFDA platform, which is an online, cloud-based platform that is intended to allow scientists from the public and private sectors to test, pilot and validate existing and new bioinformatics approaches for processing the large amounts of data collected using next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology.

The FDA’s efforts to launch the Guardian system mirror “big data” initiatives by other private and public stakeholders seeking to leverage data capture and data mining to pursue important public health, quality improvement, research and cost-containment efforts.