Wired monitoring devices can be a real hassle for hospital patients and their caregivers. Such devices make transporting a patient from one area of the hospital to another quite challenging and can limit the patient's ability to move around. But if GE Healthcare (Waukesha, Wisconsin) gets its way, soon hospitals will be using wireless medical monitoring systems, or body sensor networks (BSNs) instead.

GE reported an initiative Tuesday aimed at developing these BSNs, which the company says would replace the "traditional tangle of bedside cables" used to capture a patient's vital signs. GE said the systems would enable wireless monitoring from anywhere in the hospital or even remotely from home.

Munesh Makhija, general manager of GE Healthcare Systems and Wireless told Medical Device Daily that the company became interested in this space and began working with the FCC over the last 12 to 24 months because it has noticed a trend around wireless mobility in the healthcare industry.

In June the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), acting upon GE's petition to establish a new, vendor-neutral dedicated radio frequency band for low-power, short-range, wireless patient monitoring devices. This petition requested creation of a new Medical Body Area Network (MBAN), to support wireless sensors that monitor a patient's health state, linked together in BSNs.

According to the agency, the NPRM seeks comment on options for accommodating MBAN operations in several frequency bands, and on the amount of spectrum that should be allocated for such use.

"GE Healthcare applauds the FCC's NPRM proposing to create a dedicated radio frequency band that will help remove a major obstacle to the adoption of wireless medical body sensor networks," Makhija said. "We will continue to collaborate with industry, the FCC and other regulatory agencies to ensure the proper allocation of spectrum enabling next generation wireless monitoring devices. By replacing burdensome bedside-monitoring cables, BSNs could enable critical-care patients to move around freely, which studies suggest is essential to efficient recovery."

Makhija said GE is already developing some prototype BSNs. "Our goal is as soon as spectrums are allocated to be able to deliver solutions in this space as soon as possible," he said.

GE Healthcare said it is developing the BSNs in conjunction with GE's technology arm, GE Global Research (Niskayuna, New York). The company said the BSNs consist of sensor devices designed to collect critical patient-specific information, including temperature, pulse-oximetry, blood glucose levels, electrocardiogram readings, blood pressure levels and respiratory function. According to the company, this real-time patient information can be collected and transmitted to doctors and nurses to enable efficient patient monitoring from any location. Improved clinical decision support systems ensure healthcare providers have the most current patient information as they evaluate treatment options, GE said.

"I strongly support the allocation of wireless spectrum for medical body sensor networks," said Nathaniel Sims, physician at Mass General Hospital (Boston), assistant professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School (Boston) and physician advisor, Biomedical Engineering at Partners Healthcare (Boston). "By eliminating restrictive clinical cables, body sensor networks represent a logical evolution in patient monitoring. This technology affirms my commitment to flexible, transportable monitoring systems. Body-worn sensors could free patients from the limitations of stationary bedside monitors, improving quality of care."

Transporting a patient from one area of the hospital to another often requires caregivers to move the equipment along with the patient or to disconnect and reconnect the patient to the devices – a process that sometimes results in certain data not being collected if a wire is left unconnected. "The sensors on the body would be wireless and it would remove an entire step of disconnecting and reconnecting, which is error prone," Makhija said.

Another clinical benefit to the BSNs would be reduced risk of infection, which is a big deal for hospitals today, Makhija noted. "The more you have around a patient's body in terms of wires and tubes and devices the more you have to clean and more potential there is for infection," he said.

GE said that today, many patients are treated in specific care areas based on monitoring need alone. Studies show that patients are often admitted to the ICU because of a monitoring need, rather than for specialized nursing care, according to GE. BSNs will bring hospitals greater monitoring flexibility and scalability so they can monitor more patients with fewer staff. With BSNs, caregivers will be able to quickly add or remove parameter sensors as medical conditions warrant, integrating and evaluating parameters to make informed treatment decisions. Additionally, BSNs will allow caregivers to wirelessly monitor many parameters outside of specialized care areas. For example, EEGs, a measure of brain electrical activity, could be measured outside the neurology unit, the company noted.

"We see this as the first step of bringing some very significant changes to the way care is delivered in hospitals," Makhija said.

GE said the proposal requests the FCC allocate frequencies 2360 to 2400 MHz on a secondary, licensed basis for low-power, short-range, wireless medical devices such as BSNs. These new frequencies will provide a protected spectrum for wireless medical BSNs and reduce the potential of interference from ubiquitous unlicensed radio devices such as Bluetooth, Zigbee or Wi-Fi. According to the company, the future success of the proposal and FCC NPRM depends upon supportive comments, which convey the potential benefit of this new wireless technology to the efficient delivery of healthcare.

Amdanda Pedersen, 229-471-4212; amanda.pedersen@ahcmedia.com