The Federal Communications Commission has signed an agreement with the Enterprise Wireless Alliance to coordinate low-power wireless networks that carry signals from medical monitoring devices worn on or touching the body.
The U.S. is the first nation in the world to allocate a portion of the wireless communications spectrum to a so-called medical body area network, or MBAN. The FCC's decision could spark new ways to monitor patients in and outside of healthcare facilities.
The alliance already partners with the FCC to coordinate the allocation of bandwidth for certain business and industrial communications systems, including the two-way radios used in ambulances.
Use of the MBAN will be confined to low-power, short-range indoor use within hospitals or other medical practices, and share the same frequency range—2360 to 2400 MHz—with signals used for aircraft testing. Aircraft will have priority in geographies where the signals might overlap. In those instances, it will be the Enterprise Wireless Alliance's job to coordinate the allocation of spectrum with the Aerospace & Flight Test Radio Coordinating Council to ensure MBAN devices don't interfere with aircraft signals.
According to the FCC, healthcare organizations seeking to use the MBAN spectrum must first seek “frequency coordination” with the alliance, specifying the frequencies or range they propose to use, the power rating of their equipment and the number of transmitters they intend to employ.
Mark Crosby, president and CEO of the alliance, whose members include communications device manufacturers, resellers and users said “The sky's the limit,” on the potential uses of devices availing themselves of the MBAN spectrum.
As one example, Crosby mentioned the potential use of so-called “smart bed” technology, in which low-power sensors are placed directly in healthcare facility bedding, with their data used to prevent pressure ulcers or to monitor heart rate and respiration.
The use of wearable wireless devices is exploding, according to Andy Daecher, leader of Internet of Things practices for consultancy Deloitte. And with the increased use of such devices will come even greater patient expectations that their personal data be incorporated into their care, Daecher said in an earlier interview.
The agreement is just one more step on a path begun in response to a petition by GE Healthcare to allocate bandwidth to body-worn sensors, according to Kerry McDermott, vice president for public policy and communication at the Center for Medical Interoperability. GE's first request to the FCC was filed in 2007. Philips Healthcare, Texas Instruments and the American Society for Healthcare Engineering have since joined the effort.
The FCC approved the use of this slice of spectrum for MBANs in May 2012.
“To the FCC's credit, it did a really good job of getting out of the way to let the private sector figure out how to share this spectrum,” said McDermott, the former healthcare director at the FCC.
The center is not-for-profit organization promoting “plug-and-play” interoperability between medical devices, electronic health records system and other forms of health information technology. Its board of directors is peopled with leaders of some of the largest provider organizations in the U.S.
The small wireless devices expected to use this bandwidth should increase patient satisfaction by permitting patients to move around without disconnecting. Continuous monitoring will also increase patient safety as well.
McDermott said devices aren't in use yet, but “We hear they're coming."