Wireless spectrum expansion could mean more hospital security risks

More popular than ever, the remote patient monitoring market is predicted to top nearly $300 million within three years, and upward of $4.2 billion by 2018.

That blistering pace could accelerate even further now that the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to open two segments of the wireless spectrum for medical patient monitoring.

And hospitals who aren't already using or testing remote monitoring technologies may find themselves left behind.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., last week that the agency soon will vote on new rules to allow healthcare providers to use wireless spectrum for "medical body-area networks" (MBANs), which can transmit information from and between mobile medical devices both in the hospital and at home. He predicted that the expansion will allow providers to monitor patients vital signs throughout the continuum of care, prevent adverse events and hospital readmissions, and ultimately lower healthcare costs. 

MBANs will allow hospitals to cut the wires between patients and their monitoring machines, and make ubiquitous and unintrusive, according to Richard Katz, Director, Division of Cardiology for George Washington University Hospital, who spoke at the press conference.

Think of it this way: Patients could be fitted with sensors from the moment they enter the healthcare system--whether via ambulance, doctor's office or ER--and monitored until they leave the hospital, and possibly even all the way home.

Patients will be more mobile without having wires connecting them to multiple monitors, and that mobility might even help with recovery, noted Michael Harsh, chief technology officer for GE Healthcare, who also spoke at the conference. He added that wireless monitoring in the hospital could also help to reduce infection risks associated with wires, connectors and multiple devices near a patient's bedside.  

According to Katz, the creation of special spectrum bands will allow hospitals like GWU to push "the frontier of mHealth," to allow continuous monitoring of conditions such as chronic lung disease, asthma and hypertension, as well as powering medication reminder technologies to help patients adhere to treatment plans.

Unfortunately, the FCC announcement didn't include a detailed discussion of crucial issues hospital CIOs will want to hear, including security concerns for hundreds, or even thousands of wireless sensors transmitting data around a hospital.

Another potential fly in the ointment that we can foresee is clinician workflow: Physicians already complain about data overload, and will require some powerful analytic tools to wade through the reams of data that would come from multiple sensors on each of their patients. Who will handle that data, how, and what they'll do with it, will surely be top-of-mind for CIOs who have to implement the remote monitoring programs the FCC is encouraging.

So what do you think? Will MBANs be a boon for hospital IT programs? Or just another integration headache? - Sara