FCC mobile network plan could revolutionize health care

Pros say bandage-like monitoring devices could one day cost as little as $5 to $10

If a proposal to allocate radio spectrum for a wireless medical network is approved, many patients may no longer need to travel to a health care facility to be tethered to large machines that monitor their health.

Instead, they would be linked to monitoring systems by small, disposable wireless devices, cutting costs and reducing the risk of infection and clinical errors.

As part of its first national broadband plan unveiled earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed allocating spectrum for new medical body area networks (MBAN).

The plan includes potential service and technical rules for the networks.

The FCC is now seeking public comment on the plan, first proposed by General Electric Co.'s health care division.

The FCC said the MBANs would be used to create wireless body-sensor networks that could monitor an array of physiological data, such as temperature, pulse, blood glucose level, blood pressure and respiratory health.

Unlike traditional medical telemetry systems, which require separate links for each function being monitored, wireless MBAN systems could monitor all required functions and then aggregate the results and transmit them to a remote location for evaluation.

While the FCC plan calls for first using the MBAN spectrum only in hospitals, medical instrument vendors say that over the longer term, they could be used at home, where 80% of health care services are delivered. Paul Coss, MBAN and wireless strategy lead at Philips Healthcare, noted that patients could use home entertainment systems, such as Wii or Nintendo video game platforms, to help collect medical data and then transmit it to servers to be accessed by the patient's physician.

Coss did say that MBAN won't be feasible for home use until wireless monitoring devices are cheap enough that hospitals don't need them back, and rugged enough keep operating as long as the treatment lasts.

"We're looking at things like Nintendo and Wii instead of having to invent new stuff from scratch. I have a good friend, for example, who's using the Wii scale to weigh himself," Coss said. "I would not be surprised at all to see [health monitoring] applications that tie [wireless health monitoring devices] into Wii."

Like Bluetooth, an MBAN would use short-length radio waves, rather than cables, to communicate over short distances. The bandwidths being requested for MBANs -- 2360-2400 MHz; 2300-2305 MHz and 2395-2400 MHz; 2400-2483.5 MHz; or 5150-5250 MHz -- reside next those now used by Bluetooth devices.

"You want to keep these devices within a reasonable cost range, and this bandwidth is close to Bluetooth, so it allows you to use common transmitter chips," said Mark Brager, associate vice president of communications at the Advanced Medical Technology Association. AdvaMed is one of the organizations pushing for passage of the MBAN frequency range.

The proposed MBAN frequencies are currently used by several private and public sector organizations for aeronautical mobile telemetry and federal radiolocation tasks, and by amateur radio users. The aeronautical industry, which uses the bands to dispatch telemetry information during aircraft testing, has put up the greatest resistance to the proposed MBAN request.

"We want to make sure we respect aeronautical industry that already uses this space," Coos said, adding that steps would be taken to make sure "we're not going to interfere with that."

Philips and other medical equipment manufacturers see the MBAN networks as an opportunity to sell products to hospitals and for home health care. Some say monitoring devices could be comparable to Band-Aids or patches and cost as little as $5 to $10 apiece. The devices could be used at home by patients with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, they said.

"In fact, we can leverage existing portable technologies, so the development cycle for these devices would be shortened. I'd imaging within a few years we will be seeing [MBAN] devices become available," said Delroy Smith, technical product design lead for Philips Healthcare's informatics and patient-monitoring business.

MBAN, combined with the emergence of consumer health electronics such as portable electrocardiogram (ECG) devices, blood pressure monitors or weight scales would allow patients to seamlessly capture and deliver health data from home, at work or on the road. Portable ECGs, for instance, weigh just 3.5 oz. and allow outpatients to record electrical heart signals and transmit the results to their doctors.

Advances in microprocessor technology are expected to allow such devices to connect wirelessly with home computers, mobile phones or even remote Internet applications.

The MBAN networks could be used by other wireless medical technologies that are starting to emerge.

For example, health care experts say work is under way to develop bandages or bracelets that can monitor and transmit vital signs and patient locations. The technology could also be used in emerging database-enabled tools, such as blood sugar monitors that transmit data to central databases.

Tools that use the network to constantly monitor patient vital signs could quickly identity a staph infection, for example, before it leads to sepsis, which kills some 200,000 people annually in the U.S., according to the Surviving Sepsis Campaign.

Paula Jacobs, director of quality and performance improvement at Memphis North Hospital, said sepsis early-detection monitoring technology used for more than two years at the 280-bed facility cut sepsis-related deaths by 17%, or by about six patients per month.

Hospital infections cost between $2,000 and $12,000 per patient and $11.5 billion nationwide in 2006, according to MedMined Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based company that mines hospital data. The use of disposable devices could significantly reduce the risk of infection, Coss said.

"We're exposing the patient to a risk they don't need to have. If we can identify the precursors to a condition with wireless technology before something catastrophic has happened, then physicians can intervene earlier and at a much lower cost point and much better outcome," Coss added.

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 .

Read more about development in Computerworld's Development Knowledge Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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