The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced it will allocate a 40 MHz band of spectrum, from 2360 to 2400 MHz, for medical body area networks (MBANs) – low-power, wideband networks used by body-worn sensors to transmit patient data to a control device.

MBANs provide a cost effective way to monitor every patient in a healthcare institution, providing clinicians with accurate real-time data, allowing them to intervene earlier and potentially save lives.

According to a study by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a monitored hospital patient has a 48% chance of surviving a cardiac arrest—this number plummets as low as 6% without monitoring. This underscores the importance of having dedicated spectrum allocated for this type of patient monitoring.

While this is one step in the right direction to further the adoption of MBANs, health systems will need to proactively update their local systems to allow physicians and patients to take advantage of these emerging technologies.

In a statement following the FCC announcement, Bruce Rainey, Vice President, Facilities Design and Construction at Scripps Health, and a member of the West Wireless Health Council, touches on how important it is that hospitals and health systems deploy medical grade wireless;

“Today’s action by the FCC has the potential to transform wireless health opportunities to improve the quality of care and lower costs. It brings to the forefront the concerns and questions that a number of stakeholders involved with wireless health have been expressing, including the need for testing and certifying devices that use this spectrum, and the need for new devices and technologies accessing this spectrum to be fully interoperable.

It also demonstrates the need for hospitals and health care systems to deploy the West Wireless Health Council’s reference architecture for hospital network design. This enables medical grade wireless to be incorporated into any hospital so that new vendors and technologies, like MBAN, may be easily deployed to improve patient care and to lower costs.”

Earlier this year I interviewed Marty Miller, CIO of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, about the West Wireless Health Council and their mission to bring medical grade wireless to all hospitals and health systems across the US. The value proposition of medical grade wireless was well articulated by Miller in response to my question about what differentiates medical grade wireless from standard wireless technology deployed at a standard hospital or health system;

We think of assurance as the key differentiator, and assurance is made up of multiple components. First, it guarantees signal strength in areas of the hospital where you want to have a medical grade network. Due to costs, there may be circumstances where some organizations decide certain facilities, or individual buildings, don’t need to have medical grade wireless capability. You also get a pre-defined capacity that is well known to you, such as how many devices you can handle on your network per square foot.

Knowing that there is reliable security in place is another element, as is scalability of the network. So what makes it Medical Grade is the hospital preparation of all of those things that guarantee the assurance level necessary to deliver time sensitive, high acuity biomedical applications.

Now we have been working with the West Wireless Health Institute on the reference architecture for about a year, but we have had a medical grade wireless infrastructure for about five years now. We recently opened our newest hospital building, which really has all of our most critical learnings incorporated into it.

It’s also important to remember that we are making this reference architecture freely available to hospitals and health systems. We believe it’s very important for it to be shared because we are doing more care over the airwaves now than ever before and the last thing we would want to hear is any institution having a sentinel event where there was harm brought to a patient, or worse yet death, and it has to do with a device that was thought to be functioning correctly, and perhaps the device was but the wireless connection was not and caregivers were not alerted to some sort of critical condition.

Gary and Mary West have generously made this available because (1) they believe it improves care and (2) it saves money not to have to put in a dedicated network for each different vendor the hospital gets connected medical devices from. When the FDA approves a device for medical care, they assume the device will function correctly over a wireless network and that the wireless network is functioning like it should. So this is being made available in the interests of public health and I think that it’s great that Gary and Mary West have put this kind of energy behind it.

The fact they will be providing the reference architecture to hospitals and health systems for free is a game changer and has the potential to do more to drive the adoption of MBANs than even the FCCs new rules. Lets remember, the FCC defined “broadband” in its 2009 National Broadband Plan as “Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access” ! My hope is this decision by the FCC will give the Health Council the momentum it will need to start driving adoption of medical grade wireless and body area network technology by providers.

The Health Council has an ambitious mandate, and an up-hill battle ahead of them, but I am willing to go out on a limb and predict that if the medical grade wireless initiative is successful in distributing its reference architecture and fostering establishment and cultivation of digital health ecosystems within health systems, West Wireless will achieve its goal of using technology to meaningfully lower the cost of health care .