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Hospitals, Technology Companies and the Battle for Wireless Channels

May 16, 2008
by kate
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Earlier this week, the Chicago Tribune reported that hospital and medical device makers are expressing concerned that the proposed use of unoccupied airwaves for high-speed Internet service may cause interference with devices and disrupt the monitoring of patients' heart rates, blood oxygen levels and other vital signs.

Interference has been an issue in hospital facilities for quite some time, but lately it seems that if it’s not happening in some form, it’s happening in another.

When I spoke with Cathy Zatloukal, CEO of MobileAccess for the wireless article that appeared in the April issue, she told me that in her work with hospitals, she has heard many ED clinicians say that they experience problems with phone coverage when they are outside in the ambulance area, and that oftentimes the reason is that people in nearby apartment buildings use access points on the same channel. This interferes with clinicians’ ability to communicate with those inside the hospital.

While that issue is one that is beyond a hospital’s control, this one isn’t.

Eight years ago, the FCC allocated channel 37 exclusively for medical monitoring equipment after an incident in which a TV broadcast interfered with a hospital's heart monitors. GE Healthcare has requested that the FCC prohibit any operation within channels 33 to 36 until February 2010 to give hospitals more time to migrate to the new protected channel, according to the Tribune article.

But all don’t see eye-to-eye on this. While GE Healthcare and many others in the medical community are arguing that there needs to be an ample cushion for the hospital’s allotted channel, the technology companies feel that the valuable wireless real estate shouldn’t remain vacant. The thing is, though, we’re talking about equipment that is necessary for patient care, which leads me to think that we should be messing with it as little as possible. So when hospitals and device makers argue that using empty channels for unlicensed uses is too risky, I think they have a very valid point.

Is it worth risking a patient’s life so that we can have another source of static for entertainment outlets? I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong — I find the technology we now have amazing, and as a big sports fan, I love the fact that I can get updates anytime I want them on a laptop, phone or PDA. But I also believe if I’m in a hospital, I can wait on those scores.

GE Healthcare feels the same way, and the company is asking the FCC to enact stricter standards to protect wireless patient-monitoring equipment from being overwhelmed by other equipment operating in nearby channels.

It’ll be very interesting to see what happens in the months ahead as the medical community squares off with the technology giants. I’ll be keeping a close eye on what could be a long and hard-fought battle.

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