Power to the patient

By Erin McCann
12:02 PM

Allocated spectrum for MBANs promises liberation, new era of patient care

WASHINGTON – The patient liberation movement is imminent. Weary from being tangled and tethered to hospital beds by medical wires, patients are ready for a new tide of patient care.

A recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to usher that tide, giving the patient a little more slack, improving care and, yes, even slimming the hospitals’ financial waistlines.

The FCC voted in May to set aside broadband spectrum for medical body area networks (MBANs), essentially sensors that monitor and transmit a patient’s vital signs wirelessly.

The decision represents a potential $1.2 billion in annual savings upon full implementation and foreshadows the near future of patient monitoring technology.

GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare have been working with George Washington University Hospital on several projects related to MBANs and thus were both pushing for the decision.

Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer, patient care and clinical informatics, Philips Healthcare, called the allocation of 40 MHz of spectrum – from 2360 to 2400 MHz, a win-win for the healthcare industry: “supporting the delivery of better patient care at lower costs.” The ongoing adoption of MBANs within healthcare facilities, Jones continued, will also “help allow earlier clinical diagnoses, decisions and interventions.”

So, what exactly are the networks claim to fame? Dale Woodin, executive director at the American Society for Healthcare Engineering (ASHE), pointed out three significant benefits to using these networks over traditional telemetry.

First, it comes down to data. The devices, Woodin said, “have the potential to monitor more data than traditional telemetry.” In addition to reading blood pressure, respiration and heart rate, MBANs have the ability to monitor a patient’s blood glucose level and deliver electrocardiogram readings.

Additionally, readings can be collected from the devices at any time, from virtually any location. The data readings are then transmitted to a central device for processing and can be added to an EHR. This will allow for remote monitoring of some patients, giving them the option to stay in the comfort of their own home.

Remote monitoring has already shown considerable promise in several studies. A 2009 report by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement showed that remote monitoring of certain patients reduced readmissions by up to 80 percent.

Not surprisingly, the second benefit comes down to cost said Woodin, as MBANS are expected to cost less than traditional wireless telemetry monitoring.

And lastly, because MBANs are not limited by signals, patient monitoring throughout the entire hospital is possible. This contrasts to traditional wireless telemetry systems that Woodin said, “are often restricted to certain areas or floors of a hospital because the signals are limited.” Because of the various limitations of traditional telemetry, half of U.S. hospital patients go unmonitored.

By utilizing MBANs, Woodin continued, a unit’s wireless monitoring capability would no longer be the determining factor for patient placement. Now they can be assigned to a unit according to their medical condition. MBANs allow for an “unbroken stream of patient data to be collected and assessed, regardless of a patient’s movement through the hospital for therapy or diagnostic testing.”

Hospitals most likely won’t be tossing the cables anytime this year, however. Now that the spectrum has been set aside, companies will begin widespread manufacturing of the devices. Simultaneous to product development, Woodin added, “will be the work of the frequency coordinators, both aeronautical telemetry and MBANs, to develop the specific procedures needed to effectively coordinate spectrum use.”

"This is an important inflection point,” said Mike Harsh, vice president and chief technology officer at GE Healthcare, “as it enables advances in miniaturized wireless sensors leveraging the latest chip design and clinical measurement technologies. MBANs could significantly enhance quality and access to patient care, while supporting reduced costs."