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'Body Area Networks' should free hospital bandwidth, untether patients

Lucas Mearian | June 5, 2012
Hospitals, whose Wi-Fi networks are clogged with clinician and patient data traffic, are getting some much-needed bandwidth relief with the FCC's approval of radio bandwidth spectrum for wireless medical monitoring devices.

With the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) approval of a radio spectrum dedicated to wireless medical monitoring devices, hospitals will get some much-needed network bandwidth, patients will become untethered and device manufacturers can reduce their costs by standardizing.

The new radio spectrum, approved last month, will be used for Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs) -- low-power wideband networks consisting of multiple body-worn sensors that transmit a variety of patient data to a control device. The devices can be attached to a patient in a hospital or post-care settings for ongoing evaluation.

The approval also opens up a whole new industry of home monitoring devices for chronically-ill people. For example, 75% of healthcare costs are related to the treatment of chronic conditions, according to Lynne Dunbrack, an analyst with market research firm IDC Health Insights. And, by 2030, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to double, further increasing the number of chronically ill people.

"To have a device that can be worn and transmit is a vast improvement, as opposed to patients using a device and hand-keying it into an excel spreadsheet and bringing it into their physician," Dunbrack said. He noted that patients often "shave" points to make it appear as if they're taking better care of themselves than they are.

"So having the veracity of a machine-to-machine reading is certainly helpful," she said.

While hospitals today use a very limited number of wireless devices to monitor patients, they're most often used only for the most critical cases, as the equipment is expensive and adds data traffic to already clogged Wi-Fi networks.

Today, Wi-Fi networks in hospitals are saturated with data as clinicians use laptops and tablets to view and input patient data, employees bring their own wireless devices to work, and patients and family members use their own devices for entertainment and communication.

In almost all cases, patients are still tethered to monitoring devices by wires that can take five to 10 minutes to detach in order to allow them to move, and that can cause infection if they become contaminated. Other patients, outside of intensive care units, often aren't monitored at all because of the issues surrounding the devices.

MBANs provide a cost-effective way to monitor every patient, so clinicians can provide real-time and accurate data, allowing them to intervene and in some cases save lives. In some cases, the monitors are cheap enough that they're disposable.

The FCC has allocated 40MHz of spectrum at 2360-2400MHz for MBAN use. Wireless devices that operate on MBAN spectrum can be used to actively monitor a patient's health, including blood glucose and pressure monitoring, delivery of electrocardiogram readings and even neonatal monitoring systems.


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