Medical Body Area Networks: Challenges and Opportunities

Medical body area networks (BANs) already are measuring multiple physiological parameters and sending the data to a smartphone over wireless channels like Bluetooth. Most are involved in vital signs monitoring such as pulse, electrocardiogram, stress, gait and breathing rate.

Large-scale BANs with a large number of unobtrusive distributed wireless sensors will come in the future but to get there, medical BANs must face safety, security and sustainability issues. Krishna Venkatasubramanian, PhD, assistant professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, builds secure medical BANs. His book, “Body Area Networks: Safety, Security, and Sustainability,” will be published this month. Venkatasubramanian spoke to Clinical Innovation + Technology about the burgeoning field.

Why are safety, security and sustainability the most important issues for medical BANs?
As these systems of individual devices become more popular and more pervasive and the cost comes down, we want to make sure we’re safely monitoring people. Because systems are wireless in nature, security and privacy become important implementation issues. The whole goal is continuous monitoring and to be able to do that successfully you need sustainability.=

What are some other important issues surrounding medical BANs?
Usability is important. A recent study from Oxford University tried to measure how well medical BANs perform in the clinical setting. They found tremendous problems in sustaining even 24-hour monitoring, mainly because the devices are not designed ergonomically. That’s important because if medical BANs are deployed they need to be as comfortable as possible for people and they have to interface with the body really well. They can’t lose contact when people are moving around. We’re putting sensors in very complicated environmental circumstances.

Meanwhile, as these devices become more and more complicated, they require a lot more software. Good software is very difficult to write and safe software is even more difficult to write.

Interoperability among health IT systems is very important but, at the same time, interoperability between devices has to exist as well. There is a huge push in that area right now. BAN devices are going to have to talk to traditional devices to provide overall improved care. Plugging BANs into this interoperability set up introduces challenges because typically they are independent, less controlled and not necessarily part of traditional healthcare. We need standards.

All of these issues need to be addressed rather rigorously.

What do you think about the FCC’s designation of spectrum for medical BANs?
It’s about time. All of the prototypes in this field were on the ISM band, used by other technologies including Bluetooth, so to have BANs also function in the same band is problematic. Interference becomes a big issue. What if the BAN stops functioning or responds to something it is not supposed to? Medical BANs have been given a frequency band previous allocated for TV transmission and recently returned to the FCC when TV shifted from analog to digital. That is the first step in making these systems a reality and pervasive.

What changes do you anticipate in the medical BANs in the near future?
The growth in this field, at least from the academic and scientific standpoint, has been tremendous. The amount of research, journals and conferences associated with this topic has skyrocketed in the last couple of years. It’s definitely a field poised for significant growth. How pervasive it will become and how fast is something that is difficult to speculate.