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FCC to allow unlicensed devices on same band as patient monitors

Hospitals are worried a new rule from the Federal Communications Commission that will allow unlicensed devices to use the same wireless band as patient monitors could cause dangerous interference with the medical systems.

The FCC will allow unlicensed devices developed in the future to communicate on the TV and 600 mhz bands, part of which is now used by wireless medical telemetry systems, which allows vital-sign sensors to communicate with patient monitors and nurse station monitors. The monitors have exclusively used the band’s Channel 37, which would now be available to new devices.

Providers are concerned that allowing other types of devices to operate in relatively close proximity to hospitals’ wireless systems may interfere with patient monitoring, “preventing doctors and nurses from receiving vital information,” said Rick Pollack, the American Hospital Association’s executive vice president for advocacy and public policy and the organization’s next president and CEO.

“We remain highly concerned that if the rules adopted today are left unchanged, patient safety could be compromised,” Pollack said in a statement. “We will continue to work with Congress, the FCC and device developers to seek a remedy that puts patients first.”

The FCC has established buffer zones around hospitals to prevent interference, and those areas can be extended at the request of the facility if they’re found to be inadequate. Though the size of those zones hasn’t been publicly released, the AHA is looking for a standard buffer of at least 3 kilometers around hospitals, and the FCC’s rule called for protection that is “orders of magnitude smaller,” said Erik Rasmussen, vice president for legislative affairs at the AHA.

“They’ve drawn those lines, that circle around the hospital … it’s too close,” Rasmussen said. “There could be a device outside but it could still block the signal outside the hospital.”

The AHA tested the FCC’s proposed zones with the help of healthcare experts at General Electric Co., a leading manufacturer of patient monitors, and found that devices could interfere with wireless medical telemetry even when they were operating outside of the FCC’s buffer zone.

In order to have a buffer zone at all, hospitals would need to register with a database that would then be provided to device manufacturers. But hospitals haven’t had to worry about this problem in the past, so they haven’t signed up for similar databases. There would need to be a push to get them to sign up, said Ken Fuchs, executive vice president for interoperability research and development at the not-for-profit Center for Medical Interoperability.

“These systems were designed basically to be the only players in town,” Fuchs said. “They weren’t designed with the consideration that there may be interfering systems in the vicinity.”

GE Healthcare said in a statement that it remains concerned that the buffer zones are not adequate, but commended the FCC for allowing protection to be extended in cases where it is insufficient.

“We look forward to continuing ongoing, productive discussions working toward a final technical resolution with unlicensed white space device advocates,” the company said in a statement. “We believe these discussions are the best way to come up with a sustainable, practical solution and the accompanying technical sharing rules that hospitals will rely on.”

But not all manufacturers will run into trouble. Welch Allyn decided to switch its patient monitor transmissions to WiFi in the late 1990s in response to market forces and in the belief that patient monitors would perform better on the more sophisticated band, said Steve Baker, a principal engineer at the Skaneateles Falls, N.Y.-based medical equipment company.

Baker wondered whether the Food and Drug Administration will ask manufacturers using Channel 37 to recertify their devices’ safety and effectiveness, given that they were designed during a time where they didn’t have to counter interference.

“It’s ironic (that Channel 37) was used to address patient safety and the current rule backtracks that,” Baker said.

It’s not clear what kind of devices the government is intending to make room for on the wireless band. The rule says only that Congress asked the commission to “accommodate growing demand for and encourage innovation in unlicensed use.”

But if the AHA decides not to appeal the decision, it may need to engage in negotiations with manufacturers interested in using the band and agree on ways to mitigate interference.

Google is one of the companies reportedly interested in developing devices for use on the frequency and has already been in talks with the AHA. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Adam Rubenfire covers breaking healthcare news and supply chain for Modern Healthcare. His beat responsibilities include capital equipment, group purchasing organizations, food service and general medical supplies. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Automotive News and Crain’s Detroit Business. He has a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies from the University of Michigan. He joined Modern Healthcare in 2014.

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