'Body Area Networks' should free hospital bandwidth, untether patients

At-home use of disposable wireless monitors could be the biggest market of all

With the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) approval of a radio spectrum dedicated to wireless medical monitoring devices, hospitals will get some much-needed network bandwidth, patients will become untethered and device manufacturers can reduce their costs by standardizing.

The new radio spectrum, approved last month, will be used for Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs) -- low-power wideband networks consisting of multiple body-worn sensors that transmit a variety of patient data to a control device. The devices can be attached to a patient in a hospital or post-care settings for ongoing evaluation.

The approval also opens up a whole new industry of home monitoring devices for chronically-ill people. For example, 75% of healthcare costs are related to the treatment of chronic conditions, according to Lynne Dunbrack, an analyst with market research firm IDC Health Insights. And, by 2030, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to double, further increasing the number of chronically ill people.

"To have a device that can be worn and transmit is a vast improvement, as opposed to patients using a device and hand-keying it into an excel spreadsheet and bringing it into their physician," Dunbrack said. He noted that patients often "shave" points to make it appear as if they're taking better care of themselves than they are.

"So having the veracity of a machine-to-machine reading is certainly helpful," she said.

While hospitals today use a very limited number of wireless devices to monitor patients, they're most often used only for the most critical cases, as the equipment is expensive and adds data traffic to already clogged Wi-Fi networks.

Today, Wi-Fi networks in hospitals are saturated with data as clinicians use laptops and tablets to view and input patient data, employees bring their own wireless devices to work, and patients and family members use their own devices for entertainment and communication.

In almost all cases, patients are still tethered to monitoring devices by wires that can take five to 10 minutes to detach in order to allow them to move, and that can cause infection if they become contaminated. Other patients, outside of intensive care units, often aren't monitored at all because of the issues surrounding the devices.

MBANs provide a cost-effective way to monitor every patient, so clinicians can provide real-time and accurate data, allowing them to intervene and in some cases save lives. In some cases, the monitors are cheap enough that they're disposable.

The FCC has allocated 40MHz of spectrum at 2360-2400MHz for MBAN use. Wireless devices that operate on MBAN spectrum can be used to actively monitor a patient's health, including blood glucose and pressure monitoring, delivery of electrocardiogram readings and even neonatal monitoring systems.

Patient monitoring device manufacturers are heralding the previously-contested radio spectrum's approval because it will allow them to make products that only use one spectrum and do not need to account for other data moving across a common Wi-Fi network.

How a Medical Body Area Network works.

Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer for patient care and clinical informatics at Philips Healthcare, said his company is looking to release wireless upgrades to current wired products within a year.

One new product Philips is considering releasing in the next year is a wireless respiration monitor that would adhere to a patient's abdomen. Respiratory rate is a key indicator of patient health, but it's often only taken visually by nurses who watch for chest movement, Jones said.

"You end up getting a lot of incidences [that], if caught early, are relatively minor, but if not caught early, the patient can deteriorate very quickly and end up back in the ICU or worse, actually dying in the hospital from something that could have been prevented, like a heart attack," Jones said. "Take a patient in the general ward who suffers a heart attack. He has less than a 5% survival rate in the hospital."

But with the pressure to get patients discharged from a hospital more quickly these days, Jones said an even larger market for MBAN wireless devices will be at-home monitoring equipment for post-treatment and chronically ill patients.

Only a tiny fraction of ambulatory patients are monitored at home, Jones said.

"Vital signs are called 'vital' for a reason. They're good indicators of what's going on with the patient," he said.

A depiction of an MBAN wireless respiratory monitor

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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