FCC Broadband Vote Ushers In A New Era For TelemedicineJuly 6, 2012
At a meeting held on May 24, 2012, The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to allow the healthcare industry to use protected broadband space to develop and deploy mobile body area networks (MBANs). MBAN’s will set aside broadband spectrum for wireless healthcare monitoring devices that is free of transmission interference from Wi-Fi and other high-powered consumer devices including smart phones and tablets. The FCC’s action makes the United States the first country in the world to devote broadband spectrum to healthcare.
The FCC’s action was not decided in a vacuum as the ruling represents an important objective met in the commission’s comprehensive National Broadband Plan. In the healthcare space, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan is expected to serve as a driver for both innovation and connectivity, which are two key elements needed to lowering healthcare costs and improving patient care. The FCC worked closely with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has regulatory control over mobile medical devices, to streamline the approval process for medical devices that will use the wireless spectrum. As a result of this ruling, the FCC has allocated 40 MHz of spectrum for use by MBAN devices on a shared, secondary basis. This allocation provides a spectrum band for short-range medical technologies to facilitate very reliable low-power operation.
Today, telemedicine combines the use of traditional telecommunications and information technologies in order to provide clinical healthcare to patients at a distance. Telemedicine monitoring helps physicians improve clinical care to patients while also reducing the need for hospitalization and visits to the emergency room. This technology helps eliminate barriers and improve access to healthcare especially in rural communities where medical facilities are not readily available.
While telemedicine is recognized to be very beneficial to patients, especially those living in rural areas throughout the United States., a significant challenge to implementing MBAN’s in those communities is the lack of access to broadband services. The FCC cites that an estimated eighteen million Americans currently live in areas without broadband access. The expectation shared by many stakeholders in the healthcare industry is the FCC ruling should serve as the catalyst to close the broadband connectivity gap for healthcare providers while aligning the commission’s efforts with the emerging meaningful use criteria and patient-centered coordinated care models. Without a shadow of a doubt, health information technology will not reach its true potential without full access to broadband services.
As the FCC works with broadband providers to expand coverage in rural areas throughout the country, the benefits of wireless monitoring and telemedicine via MBANs to patients and clinicians are significant. Many inpatient and telemedicine monitors today require connecting patients to devices using cables. The elimination of those wires could increase a patient’s mobility which will help contribute to improved patient outcomes and enhancing overall comfort. Small sensors could collect real-time clinical information such as temperature, blood glucose and respiratory function, and aggregate it at a nearby device for local processing and forwarding to centralized displays and electronic health records. By eliminating the cables that restrict a patient to their hospital bed or home, experts say the devices could transform the way a patient’s health is monitored. With MBANs, patients can stay connected to their clinicians at all times allowing for the continuous monitoring of vital signs even before they reach a hospital, while being moved from unit to unit, and even after they are discharged from the hospital. This technology is essential to reducing the costs of healthcare and giving patients and their providers an uninterrupted portal through which to share information.
Additional benefits of MBANs to patients in the hospital may include:
1) Increased flexibility. Clinicians will have the ability to quickly add or remove sensors for different physiological parameters as medical conditions warrant.
2) Ease of transporting patients. No longer will there be a need to disconnect and reconnect wires prior to transporting a patient.
3) Early detection of health issues. Clinicians can catch issues before a patient’s condition becomes critical, thus improving patient outcomes and potentially avoiding the need for acute interventional measures.
4) Infection control. By eliminating monitoring wires, MBANs could help reduce the risk of infection and the need for wire and sensor cleaning procedures.
In conclusion, mobile body area networks are the future for inpatient monitoring, telemedicine technologies, and represent an exciting next big step for healthcare in the United States.