Better testing sought for how wireless medical devices will interact

WASHINGTON—Hospitals and technology experts want the federal government to help create a platform or protocols for making sure medical devices can co-exist and interact on crowded wireless networks without disrupting one another.

Wireless technology promises more seamless interaction of medical devices and information technology in hospitals. But without more-effective testing, it can be difficult to tell whether introducing a new wireless device will interfere with (or be disrupted by) other traffic on the network.

Participants at a Tuesday conference convened by the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration called on the agencies to help address the problem.

Networked medical devices might include continuous-glucose-monitoring devices that automatically adjust insulin doses and surgical sponges that inform clinicians of their location, preventing them from being left in the patient’s body after surgery.

It’s relatively straightforward to test whether one device can exchange data with another. It’s more difficult to test how many devices will interact when they’re crowded onto the same wireless network in a hospital environment. That means managing medical data, voice calls between doctors and clinicians, and general Web surfing all at the same time.

If managing all these devices goes wrong, it can result in dropped or interrupted data, warned Rick Tevis, the director of clinical engineering at Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, Pa., and Dr. Steven Baker, senior principal engineer at medical-device manufacturer Welch Allyn.

“Clinicians aren’t thinking about what network it’s on, or whether the device is regulated or unregulated,” said Kerry McDermott, vice president of public policy and communications at the not-for-profit Center for Medical Interoperability. “People buying these devices need to have confidence that (they) are going to work correctly.”

Shawn Jackman, the director of wireless product management and engineering at Kaiser Permanente, said one of its hospitals might have 70 different devices on its network, not including the patients and their families using Wi-Fi for their computers, phones and tablets. So Kaiser built a so-called test bed that allows the system to put devices through their paces—to see how they interact with each other in real-life environments.

Other providers and manufactures have developed their own test beds, but there are no shared standards for how to do it.

“It’s all separate,” Baker said. “We don’t have a protocol.”

Robert Jarrin, senior director of government affairs at semiconductor company Qualcomm, said the FDA and the FCC could address that problem by forging a private-public partnership that would create such a protocol or a shared environment to support more-effective testing.

A common protocol or shared testing environment is important because small or rural hospitals don’t have the resources to develop test beds on their own, Geisinger’s Tevis said. “We need to get it down to a level in which everyone can use it.”