Physicians could see more medical devices going mobile

The FCC gives some health technology its own radio spectrum, apart from that for smartphones and other uses, to encourage companies to expand mobile health.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted June 14, 2012

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If all goes as the wireless health industry plans, it can start introducing far more products that allow physicians to monitor patients with no wires attached.

The Federal Communications Commission announced that wireless monitoring devices will be allowed to transmit data by spectrum bands previously reserved for use by the aerospace industry for flight testing. This dedicated spectrum will allow physicians to monitor patients anytime from anywhere without the worries of an unreliable network disrupting data flow.

While the FCC and health care may not appear to have shared interests, when it comes to mobile health, the FCC is key to how those technologies are deployed and used. Everything from radio signals to cellphone calls are transmitted across U.S. airwaves through dedicated spectrum bands. When mobile device manufacturers develop new products, they are designed to work on specific spectrums that the FCC has granted permission to use. Due to the overwhelming number of mobile devices in use today, existing Wi-Fi networks have been deemed not reliable enough for use by critical monitoring devices.

GE Healthcare and Royal Philips Electronics, both of whom have devices in development that are awaiting spectrum allocation before taking them to market, advocated the reallocation of spectrum used by the aerospace industry for test flights to be shared with Medical Body Area Networks, low-cost wearable sensors that collect and transmit vital signs. In 2011, representatives from the medical and aerospace industries submitted a joint proposal to the FCC that detailed a shared wireless spectrum. The FCC acted on the recommendation and announced its plan on May 24.

MBAN technology would replace devices in hospitals that transmit data via cords and wires, which can be a source of infections and germs. MBANs also can be used for monitoring outside of the hospital setting, such as home fetal telemetry devices that would keep expectant mothers at home rather than at the hospital hooked up to fetal monitors.

The 40 MHz of newly allocated spectrum would apply only to new technology designed to work on those frequencies. Current technology will not be affected.

The FCC’s action “has the potential to transform wireless health opportunities to improve the quality of care and lower costs,” Bruce Rainey, vice president of facilities design and construction at Scripps Health, said in a statement issued on behalf of the West Wireless Health Council, a coalition of hospital leaders from across the country focused on advancing wireless technology in health care.

“It brings to the forefront the concerns and questions that a number of stakeholders involved with wireless health have been expressing, including the need for testing and certifying devices that use this spectrum and the need for new devices and technologies accessing this spectrum to be fully interoperable,” he said.

Robert Litan, an economist with the Brookings Institute, published “Vital Signs via Broadband: Remote Monitoring Technologies Transmit Savings, Enhances Lives,” a 2008 report that estimated that remote monitoring technologies could save as much as $197 billion over the next 25 years in the United States (link).

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