A Wireless @ VT team is using wireless technology to make the hospitals of the future more efficient. From left: Jeff Reed, Jung-Min (Jerry) Park, and Taeyoung Yang.
A nurse walks into a room with a bag of medication for a patient. Tearing open the bag breaks an RFID tag, and a computer records that the patient received medicine at 2:46 p.m. The blood pressure and heart rate monitors record minute-by-minute data to see how the patient reacts.
As a cardiologist walks into a patient's room, a wall monitor displays her vital signs and information on how well her pacemaker is working. The computer notes when the doctor came in, and inputs comments from the doctor.
While a patient is sitting up after an MRI, the information is already being transmitted through a wireless network to his medical records and to the two doctors overseeing his case. As the patient is wheeled back to the room, sensors in the rooms and hallway keep track of his location.
A pervasive wireless communication system
Jeff Reed, director of Wireless @ Virginia Tech, and associate professor Jung-Min (Jerry) Park envision a hospital where communications between sensors, equipment, and caregivers is pervasive and wireless. The technology, they say, can improve patient care and reduce costs.
In their vision, every sensor and device would be connected in an intelligent system: hospital beds, MRI machines, blood pressure monitors, and environmental sensors would all be tied to a massive wireless communications network. Working with research scientist Taeyoung Yang, they have a plan to make this vision a reality. "I really think this could be the next big area for us as a group," says Reed. "One of the most dramatic changes for our lifestyle in the coming years will be in medical care. Adopting new technology in an appropriate way can improve care and reduce costs," he says.
A current hospital room with its tangle of wires and multiple monitors. The Wireless @ VT team hopes to make the wires and many of the boxes disappear.
Each hospital room today can house dozens of devices for monitoring the patient, according to Reed, and simplifying these devices could significantly reduce their cost. Currently, each device has sensors, processors, and a screen. Instead, Reed anticipates having sensors feed into a central computer that will process the data and consolidate the results on one screen. "If you digitize the sensor data at the source, you wouldn't need the case, the power supply, the screen, or the computer inside," he says.
A pervasive wireless communications system can also improve the efficiency of the hospital staff. Reed notes that nurses and doctors can spend a lot of time typing on computers. He believes that "new technologies will help us be more efficient if they're done right. But if these technologies are going to be successful, they need to help the staff focus on the patient instead of the computer."
Treatment quality can also benefit from next-gen hospital wireless communications networks. Finding equipment, waiting for test results, and gathering data are all made easier with rapid communications between equipment and people. Giving every piece of equipment an RFID tag that monitors a device's location will allow hospital staff to find equipment without searching. Automatic, instant test results allow for more rapid treatment.
There are also benefits for data collection. With the patient monitoring devices communicating via a central system, patient responses to medication can be monitored continually instead of waiting to be collected and synthesized. With this information fusion, "a doctor can more easily find relationships between things like heart rate and oxygen level if the information from multiple devices is consolidated onto one screen," says Reed.
In a hospital, where people and devices often move between rooms, a communications network will have to be mostly wireless. The potential is tremendous for improved outcomes and lower costs. However, this technology must be implemented with care to avoid additional cost and medical mistakes.
Wireless devices are already being implemented in hospital settings. Today, there can be many wireless devices in each room with a variety of different communications standards operating over many different radio frequency (RF) spectrum bands, Reed says. With wireless technology being used for medical instrumentation, tracking, sensors and data collection, a hospital is "one of the most cluttered RF environments around."
The radio environment promises to become even more crowded. Reed cites the recently adopted rules for medical micro-power networks that will provide functional electric stimulation to activate and monitor nerves and muscles. "How do we glue all this together when there's just not enough bandwidth available," he asks. "We need a new approach to using spectrum given the variety of bands, signals, and regulations."
To work with the limited bandwidth, the wireless devices in the hospital will have to operate at low power for devices in a single area so that they don't interfere with other nearby devices. Also, communications will have to be prioritized: certain signals are clearly more important than others. Inventory control, for example, doesn't need a constant communications link to the rest of the hospital. Reed comments that this is "a direct extension of the cognitive radio applications that we've done already."
The plan is to develop the agile hardware, cloud framework and software enabled intelligence, create a safe and secure RF management environment, then demonstrate the technology in real settings. Reed acknowledges that it will take a long time, but the team has already made headway. They hope to demonstrate a drug tracking system this summer.
The technology won't be implemented in a vacuum. There are social ramifications to consider, Reed says. "This is not just a technical problem." Their plan is to build a highly interdisciplinary team to tackle the issues involved. "We want to provide the spectrum infrastructure for study and experimentation," he says.
The team already has a test site at the Center for Advanced Engineering Research (CAER) in Lynchburg, and hopes to add another in Blacksburg. With so many potential stakeholders (including hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and even the military), this project should also trigger economic development. "One thing we also want to do is help economic development for this state," Reed says. "If you have facilities like this, you can get companies to come."
There are security and privacy issues to accompany this new technology, and Reed doesn't know how to address all of them. "But I'll give them the infrastructure," he says. "I can do that."