Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski announced on Thursday that the agency will likely adopt a plan to dedicate a nationwide swath of spectrum to the operation of wireless medical monitoring devices.
Final approval is expected at the FCC’s next open meeting, scheduled for May 24. The spectrum allocation is part of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.
The move would make the “U.S. the first country in the world to dedicate spectrum for Medical Body Area Networks in hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices,” Genachowski said.
Genachowski made the announcement at an event at George Washington University Hospital in Washington that included presentations from GE Healthcare and Philips Healthcare offering a glimpse into the future of wireless medical monitoring. The companies have long advocated for the spectrum grant and are planning to design medical monitoring devices that operate over Medical Body Area Networks, or MBANs.
The spectrum gives hospitals a dedicated band for the operation of monitoring devices, many of which now share bandwidth with other hospital IT functions on wi-fi networks. Companies that want to build wireless monitoring devices will now be able to design to a predictable standard.
The frequencies allocated for these networks, between 2360 and 2400 megahertz and just below wi-fi on the spectrum map, don’t support long-range communication at low power. Within a hospital, they allow for patients to have their vital signs monitored by the placement of a single sensor within range of a hub that receives the data.
For patients, this means they can move about within a hospital while being monitored, and it gives hospitals the flexibility to continue to monitor patients as they move from critical care to recovery and even at home, via a sensor that transmits to a home-based unit that could forward information to hospitals over broadband or cellular networks.
For doctors, it means the ability to collect and analyze patient information continuously. George Washington University cardiologist Richard Katz said it provides doctors direct access to patients, without having to traverse a thicket of leads, wires, and patches. “My problem is, I can’t even get my stethoscope on a patient’s chest any more,” he said.
Government and industry is hoping the advent of MBANs could usher in a period of growth and innovation in mobile health. Currently, programs like remote glucose monitoring for diabetics require patients to take a blood-sugar reading, enter the information into a mobile app, and transmit it to their physician. Dr. Katz imagines a system in which a sensor supplies all the necessary information on its own, without conscious patient input.
Devices that operate on the MBAN spectrum will have to be licensed by the FCC and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Philips Healthcare chief marketing officer Anthony Jones wouldn’t forecast exactly when MBAN monitoring systems would be on the market, but said he thought it could be a matter of a few years.
The FCC and FDA have a memorandum of understanding designed to “accelerate and foster innovation when it comes to communications-related medical devices or medical-related communications devices,” Genachowski said. He also said that the FCC wants to make it “easier for companies like GE and Philips and others to test spectrum-based ideas.” To that end, the agency plans to “significantly simplify our process for granting experimental licenses” including potentially granting automatic licenses to researchers so that they can test projects without applying for one-off approvals.