UPDATE 1-FCC chooses spectrum for wireless medical devices

Thu May 17, 2012 2:30pm EDT

* Vote for approval expected May 24

* Sets aside two bands for medical devices

By Sinead Carew

NEW YORK, May 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. telecommunications regulator on Thursday announced plans to set aside a chunk of spectrum for connecting wireless medical devices to allow for more convenient and cost-effective health monitoring.

The allocation of spectrum for so-called Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs) is part of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski's push to free up unused spectrum and will be up for a vote at the FCC's May 24 meeting.

The idea, which the FCC has been working on for about two years, is that doctors could monitor a patient's vital signs at home or in the hospital via low-cost wearable sensors that are attached to the patient's body and wirelessly connected to the machines that process and display the data for doctors.

Currently, such sensors have to be attached directly to machines by wires, making it difficult for patients to leave their beds.

The masses of wires connected to a patient also make it more difficult to care for them and potentially increases the chances of hospital errors and impedes infection control, Michael Harsh, chief technology officer of GE Healthcare, said during a webcast of a press event where the plan was announced.

As well as allowing for better healthcare, Anthony Jones, chief marketing officer for Philips Healthcare, said the wireless devices would reduce costs as patients may not have to stay in a hospital for so long to be monitored.

"The cost of monitoring beyond the hospital has been too expensive. What MBANs does is changes this equation dramatically," Jones said.

The FCC said the new devices could also help speed a diagnosis or allow earlier intervention in the case of a medical problem as doctors may be able to respond more quickly.

The FCC's Genachowski told reporters that a hospital patient monitored with such equipment would have a roughly 48 percent chance of surviving a cardiac arrest compared with a 6 percent chance for unmonitored patients.

As well as setting aside the spectrum, Genachowski said he would look into other ways that could make it easier for medical device makers to experiment with new types of wireless applications and bring such products to the market.

"To maximize the potential we will consider new rule makings to allow more intensive use of spectrum," he said.

Any devices would still need to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the country's healthcare regulator.

Genachowski said the FCC had worked with the FDA to make the current initiative possible. The FDA was not immediately available for a comment.

So far the FCC aims to set aside two spectrum bands, one of which would only be valid for devices used in medical facilities. A second spectrum band could be used for remote monitoring of patients who are in their own homes.

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