Health care industry stakeholders sound the alarm on FCC's wireless auction

Topics: Health Information Technology, Data Privacy Security, Electronic Health Records, Mobile Health, Medical Devices, Politics and Policy, Federal Government, Regulatory, Providers

FCC is poised to auction off large swaths of little-used wireless spectrum on Tuesday, but the American Hospital Association (AHA) and others worry opening up the spectrum will lead to interference with wireless channels dedicated to health monitoring devices -- and potentially put patients at risk.

The wireless airwaves are getting crowded, and the tech industry is clamoring to free up little-used wireless frequencies in the 600 MHz range to make room for more devices and wireless services. Currently, that area of the spectrum -- which includes Channels 14 to 51 -- is allocated primarily for television stations, which do not use all of those wireless frequencies.

However, it also includes Channel 37, which FCC set aside in 2000 for medical use to ensure that patient monitoring devices are not disrupted by high-definition television signals and other broadcasts.

J.P. Morgan estimates the auction will raise between $25 billion and $35 billion.

Hospitals' concerns

According to Politico Pro and Modern Healthcare, hospitals have been vigorously lobbying FCC and Congress to reconsider the auction -- or at least mandate a wide wireless buffer zone around hospitals. Without the protections, some critics argue that devices critical to patient care, such as wireless blood pressure monitors used in the ICU, could malfunction. 

Erik Rasmussen, VP of legislative affairs at AHA, said the FCC and tech companies don't understand the unique needs of hospitals. "They don't understand hospital engineering," he argued. According to Politico Pro's David Pittman, certain frequencies being auctioned will be "dangerously close" to hospitals' dedicated spectrum, and "hospital industry tests have shown [interference] could wreak havoc on fetal heart monitors or trackers on Alzheimer's patients."

That is why AHA is pushing for a two-mile wireless buffer zone around hospitals -- something FCC has rejected, instead allowing hospitals to file waiver requests to have buffer zones of 380 meters. Rasmussen is also skeptical of the smaller buffer zone, noting it has never been tested.

"It's science-fiction. It's never been done before," he said, adding, "It's an interesting idea, but so is the Millennium Falcon."

Chris Lavanchy -- an expert with ECRI, a patient safety-focused group -- said FCC has pledged to monitor for interface issues but worries the monitoring will be lax. "I can't help being a little skeptical about how effective that [monitoring] will be," he said.  

How hospitals could benefit

Wireless industry groups say hospitals' fears are unfounded and that freeing up the spectrum will open the door to new types of devices, including those that are used for medical monitoring.

Some industry observers also say hospitals could benefit from the wireless spectrum auction. For instance, Tom Martin, a director with HIMSS, said patients could gain access to better continuous-monitoring devices because the auctioned-off signals are more effective at penetrating buildings.

by Sam Bernstein, staff writer