The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on May 24 on whether to allow the healthcare industry to use designated broadband space to develop and deploy mobile body area networks (MBANs). The wireless technology is used to continuously monitor physiological signs, including pulse rate, blood pressure and glucose measurements.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made the announcement at a May 17 press briefing at George Washington University (GWU) Hospital in Washington D.C. If approved, the move would open the door to more and better uses of wireless monitoring both inside and outside the hospital setting.
Calling MBANs “the next big step” in healthcare, Genachowski said the FCC’s action would make the United States the first nation in the world to devote broadband spectrum to healthcare.
“MBANs will improve patient care, increase patient mobility and improve innovation,” he said.
According to federal officials, the FCC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has regulatory control over mobile medical devices, are working together to streamline the approval process for medical devices that use the wireless spectrum. While the FDA is regulating how those devices are used in a medical setting, the FCC is regulating the devices as a means of communication.
The suggestion to develop healthcare-specific broadband spectrum was first made by GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare, both of which have been collaborating with GWU Hospital on a number of MBAN projects. The two companies enlisted the help of the Aerospace & Flight Test Coordinating Council and the American Society for Healthcare Engineering of the American Hospital Association to pinpoint a range of broadband spectrum that could be designated for MBANs.
At the May 17 briefing, Barry Wolfman, CEO and managing director of GWU Hospital, and Richard J. Katz, MD, director of the hospital’s cardiology division, said GWU has been working with wireless mobile technology for several years, using it to monitor everything from diabetic patients and those with heart problems to the progress of wound care. The hospital recently received a grant from the CTIA, Katz said, to use wireless technology to transmit ECG readings from ambulances to the hospital.
“MBANs represent the future of wireless technology in healthcare,” Wolfman said.
Michael Harsh, vice president and chief technology officer for GE Healthcare, said patients now coming into a hospital’s intensive care unit are attached to a dozen cables or more, thus restricting their mobility and comfort level and making it difficult for clinicians to treat them or move them to another department. In addition, he said the monitoring of vital signs only occurs when the cables are attached to the patient.
With MBANs, he said, “patients stay connected to their clinicians” at all times, allowing for the continuous monitoring of vital signs even while the patient is being moved from unit to unit. In addition, he said, patients can be monitored before they reach a hospital and after they’re sent home.
Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer for patient care and clinical informatics at Philips Healthcare, said the current form of monitoring patient vital signs is expensive, inefficient and open to the risk of hospital-acquired infections and other adverse events. With studies indicating at least half of all hospital patients in the United States aren’t having their vital signs monitored, he pointed out, “minor issues could become major events” and lead to more extensive medical care and even death.
The proposal before the FCC would designate the 2.36-2.4 GHz spectrum for MBANs and would be shared with aerospace manufacturers and the government, which use the 2.3 GHz spectrum to test aircraft and missiles. Neither use would conflict with the other, officials said.
Genachowski said the FCC’s action is part of a broad-based federal effort launched in 2009 to develop a national broadband plan – and one of the goals of that plan is to make mobile communications an independent universal service goal. An estimated 18 million Americans, he said, currently live in areas without broadband access.
He talked of seeing examples of mobile healthcare technology all over the nation, from wireless devices that monitor heart rate and blood glucose levels to smart pillboxes that tell patients when to take their medications and how much to take. This technology, he said, is essential to reducing the costs of healthcare and giving patients and their care providers an uninterrupted portal through which to share information.
As an example, he pointed out that the survival rate for people who suffer a heart attack while being monitored is 48 percent – but that rate drops to 6 percent for those who aren’t monitored.
‘If patients aren’t connected, well, they’re just off the grid,” he said.