FCC Proposes New Wireless Spectrum for Medical Monitoring

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has unveiled a proposal to increase wireless spectrum for Medical Body Area Network devices to enable uninterrupted monitoring of patients.

The Federal Communications Commission is set to discuss new rules governing remote monitoring that would make the United States the first country to allocate spectrum for Medical Body Area Network (MBAN) devices.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski unveiled the new proposal on May 17 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., along with executives from GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare, two vendors that are developing MBAN products.

These short-range networks comprise small, low-power sensors that can be placed on the body to pick up vital data, such as body temperature and respiratory function. Sensors attach to the body and a local wireless hub, according to the FCC.

By using MBANs, doctors and nurses in hospitals can avoid having to disconnect patients multiple times, whether it's in an ambulance or various areas of a hospital. MBANs can also speed up diagnoses, reduce readmissions and allow patients to remain in their homes.

The FCC will discuss the potential new rules at its open commission meeting May 24. The spectrum band would carry MBAN signals in the 2,360MHz to 2,400MHz range, according to the FCC.

This spectrum, previously reserved for commercial test pilots, could be used in hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices, said Genachowski in his remarks at George Washington University.

The FCC will consider the proposal prepared by GE, Philips and the Aerospace and Flight Test Radio Coordinating Council (AFTRCC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting aerospace radio frequency.

"Before a health care facility could use the 2,360 to 2,390MHz band, they go through a coordination process that considers its actual geographic location in the context of actual aeronautical telemetry receiver locations and actual existing use of the band," Neal Seidl, manager of global design controls at GE Healthcare, wrote in an email to eWEEK.

"Since there are relatively few aeronautical receive locations and they tend to be clustered€”around certain military bases, for example€”we expect that the majority of hospitals€”around 96 percent€”would have access to the entire band."
The proposal also calls for a control signal to enforce coordination between aeronautical receiver and health care signals, said Seidl.

Hospitals will receive a unique key to activate their portion of the band, he said.

"This key is automatically distributed to MBAN devices in the hospital by the beacon signal, which ensures that the MBAN devices operating according to the key are actually located in the hospital at the time," said Seidl.

The FCC's agenda for health care involves promoting connectivity, enabling medical devices and mobile apps as well as allocating spectrum for medical devices, said Genachowski.

Almost 50 percent of patients in U.S. hospitals are not monitored, the FCC reported.

"A monitored hospital patient has a 48 percent chance of surviving a cardiac arrest," said Genachowski. "Unmonitored patients have a 6 percent chance of survival."

MBAN networks can be used for fetal telemetry and could allow premature infants to go home sooner and seniors to remain at home longer, said Genachowski.

Products that monitor patients in their home include Philips' LifeLine Home Care Pendants (demoed at the George Washington University event) and Independa's Artemis remote-monitoring sensors for seniors.

"The real game-changer for MBAN technology can be health monitoring in the home," said Genachowski.

By allocating spectrum for medical sensors, patients will avoid having wireless dead zones interrupt their transmission of vital data to doctors, Genachowski suggested.

"You definitely get dead zones and barriers in that part of the spectrum not intended for mission-critical applications," Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer for patient care and clinical informatics at Philips Healthcare, told eWEEK.

Philips plans to move some of its remote-monitoring products, such as fetal telemetry technology and its IntelliVue MX40 Wearable Patient Monitor, to the new spectrum if it's approved, said Jones.

"The easier you can get that patient hooked up and getting those vital signs, the faster you can initiate intervention," he explained.

Hospitals can turn away patients from admission if MBANs enable earlier observation and treatment in an ambulance eliminates the need for more aggressive treatment at the care facility, Jones noted.

Philips' telemetry sensors link with its IntelliVue Guardian early-warning software, which applies algorithms on the data to help doctors with clinical decisions, said Jones. The company also demonstrated a new respiratory monitor in the works.

At the George Washington University event, GE showed a mock-up of how body-worn sensors could transmit vital patient data on MBANs.

Using MBANs can also reduce alarm fatigue, according to Jones, as doctors will have more accurate real-time data. Alarm fatigue is a type of faulty health care IT implementation that can distract doctors from truly important data about patients' conditions.