Cut the cords and leverage the (mobile) airwaves

The United States is the first nation in the world to allocate spectrum for Medical Area Body Networks (MBANs). Through suggestions from the industry since December 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) posted the final rule related to MBANs on Sept. 11, effective Oct. 11.

So what does this mean?

This will give MBAN device manufacturers the green light to expand their portfolio of offerings, knowing there is a dedicated (or semi-dedicated) spectrum of the 2360-2400 MHz band. This band is still shared with amateur radio, but there are certainly very different purposes for its use, and in different settings. The commission finds that the risk of increased interference is minimal and is greatly outweighed by the benefits of the MBAN rules.

The following bullets (from FCC DOC 314146A1) provide an excellent summary of the benefits of MBANs to the mHealth space and the overall healthcare industry:

  • Almost 50 percent of all patients in U.S. hospitals are not monitored. MBANs provide a cost-effective way to monitor every patient in a healthcare institution, so clinicians can provide real-time and accurate data, allowing them to intervene and save lives.
  • MBANs allow for ubiquitous and reliable monitoring and give healthcare providers the chance to identify life-threatening problems or events before they occur.
  • Parts of the MBAN spectrum can also be used outside the hospital and in patients' homes.  Monitoring a patient at home saves money by reducing readmission rates.
  • With in-home patient monitoring, premature babies could come home a little sooner, a father struggling with heart disease could be aware of his condition and still make his kids’ soccer game, and a grandmother living alone could stay in her home and keep her independence.
  • MBAN-equipped devices will allow patients greater independence and mobility, both in the hospital and in the home – leading to a higher level of comfort and care.
  • Physicians can intervene before a patient’s condition seriously deteriorates, resulting in less time spent in the intensive care unit, and can reduce costly follow-up visits.
  • One healthcare company estimates it could save $1.5 million per month if unplanned (emergency) transfers could be prevented by early detection and treatment.
  • Disposable wireless sensors can also help decrease hospital-acquired infections. The industry estimates that disposable sensors could help to save an estimated $2,000 to $12,000 per patient – more than $11 billion nationwide.
  • Remote monitoring of patients with congestive heart failure alone would create an annual savings of more than $10 billion a year.

So what else is keeping the FCC busy? 

Earlier this year (June 2012), the FCC convened a summit with industry leaders to discuss opportunities to accelerate the adoption and use of mobile healthcare technologies. Since then, participants have formed an mHealth Task Force to develop recommendations for industry and government action to harness the potential of mobile devices to improve health outcomes and lower costs of care. The mHealth Task Force Recommendations will be provided to the FCC chairman on Sept. 24.

And, on Sept. 28, it is expected that the FCC will vote on how much is a fair share of the airwaves or spectrum (the radio frequencies used to transmit signals in wireless devices) over which a single entity should have control.

The FCC is not the only one interested in how much is fair game when it comes to dividing up the airwaves. In fact, the Competitive Carriers Association wants its fair share of spectrum and is making its voice known.

So hold onto your hats. The winds are a-changin’. I’d suggest keeping your seatbelt buckled for this one, as there could be some turbulence over the airwaves in the next few months.

David Collins, MHA, CPHQ, CPHIMS, FHIMSS, is the senior director of mHIMSS, the mobile initiative of HIMSS.  He has been on more than 30 site visits assessing HIMSS Davies Award candidates and is past liaison to the HIMSS Patient Safety Quality Initiative. He is a 2012 Baldrige Award Examiner.