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GE Healthcare Path to Patient-Monitoring Boom Impeded by Boeing

Bandwidth Spectrum
A specific bandwidth spectrum could be used for wireless medical monitoring. Illustration: David Rogowski/Bloomberg

Technology companies led by General Electric Co. want to revolutionize the nascent medical-monitoring industry by taking to the airwaves. Standing in the way is Boeing Co.

GE’s health-care unit has asked the Federal Communications Commission to allow devices that transmit patients’ vital signs to share the 2360MHz to 2400MHz range of the electromagnetic spectrum, now used by Chicago-based Boeing to test the safety of planes. It’s the only section of the spectrum where remote monitoring would be cost-effective, according to GE Healthcare.

Boeing, the largest U.S. aircraft maker, is urging the FCC not to allow new uses of the space. Transmitting medical signals on the spectrum would interfere with flight-test data, causing delays that would cost $50,000 an hour, said Audrey Allison, the company’s frequency-management services director. The disputed bandwidth may bring the U.S. as much as $6 billion should the FCC decide to auction it, said Coleman Bazelon, an industry consultant at Brattle Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“This is a technical issue, and they’ll have to battle it out,” said Robert Litan, an economist and Internet policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It might look like a fight about spectrum, but at the end of the day, it’s all about money.”

U.S. airwaves transmit everything from television signals and mobile-phone calls to FM radio and military communications. The airwaves are sliced into different frequencies, or bands, for specific uses so your phone call doesn’t interfere with a top-secret spy mission, for example.

Public Safety

The FCC is reallocating portions of the spectrum to unclog wireless communications networks and enhance public safety, selling off large chunks in auctions that have yielded billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury.

The band used by Boeing and coveted by GE may be worth $3 billion to $6 billion at auction, Bazelon said. Whether the FCC will even hold an auction isn’t known.

The agency will hold a public meeting with the Food and Drug Administration July 26 and 27 to discuss using the airwaves for remote monitoring. The systems wirelessly register vital statistics, such as heart rate or blood-oxygen saturation.

The technology, already used in some hospitals, promises to cut costly doctor visits for millions of patients by allowing blood pressure, heart rates and other vital signs to be checked at a distance, potentially saving lives and billions of dollars.

The devices “measure physiological signals continuously,” said Munesh Makhija, general manager of systems and wireless at GE Healthcare, based in Chalfont St. Giles, in the U.K. near London. They would “make work flow a lot more productive for the hospital,” he said in an interview.

Cost Savings

Wireless monitoring would make it simpler to keep tabs on patients, especially those who can’t or won’t report on their own, Makhija said. Such systems have the potential to generate cost savings for the health system, he said.

Cutting down on the equipment used to monitor health also can aid infection control, since “you would not have to clean and re-clean cables, tubes and connectors,” Makhija said.

An analysis by Litan of Brookings estimated that remote monitoring technologies may save as much as $197 billion in health-care costs over 25 years.

“It’s a really enticing technology,” said Bernie Liebler, director of technology and regulatory affairs at the Advanced Medical Technology Association, a Washington-based industry group. “This would allow that kind of continuous monitoring while people are walking around” and carrying out normal day-to-day activities, he said.

Question of Power

When the agency first opened discussion on use of the spectrum, it suggested alternative bands for medical monitoring. GE Healthcare said those options are unworkable.

“Chips operating at those frequencies consume too much power,” making them too costly to develop and implement widely, said Neal Seidl, a wireless architect at GE Healthcare.

Boeing, which says it needs exclusive use of the spectrum to ensure the safety of millions of travelers who fly on its airplanes, expects a decision from the FCC “in the next few months,” Allison said in a May interview.

The FCC has no set date on deciding on GE Healthcare’s request, Julius Knapp, chief of the commission’s office of engineering and technology, said in an interview.

International Business Machines Corp. of Armonk, New York, Royal Philips Electronics NV of Amsterdam, and Nordic Semiconductor ASA of Trondheim, Norway, are also developing technologies to transmit a continuous flow of health information using the spectrum space.

Monitoring Market

An FCC decision to make the spectrum available for medical use would boost development of remote monitoring, a market expected to reach $4.6 billion in annual revenue by 2014, according to TMNG Global, a consulting company based in Overland Park, Kansas.

If the FCC rules in favor of GE Healthcare, Boeing would pursue its legal options, Allison said. She declined to say what those choices might be. Agency decisions can be challenged in court.

“We’re optimistic that we will find a workable solution, because it’s so important to protect our ability to do flight tests in the U.S.,” Allison said.

Remote-monitoring devices have potential for widespread use and significant savings for the U.S. health-care system, compared with only a limited use in aircraft testing, said Preston Marshall, director of wireless networking at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, in Los Angeles.

“We’re talking a few people who do telemetry or testing, versus potentially everyone’s grandmother,” Marshall said.

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