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Patients unplugged

Technology | Wireless sensors may unhook patients from hospital beds

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

The experience of being tethered to a hospital bed by wires that monitor pulse or blood pressure could soon be a thing of the past. In May the Federal Communications Commission set aside a portion of airwave spectrum for the use of "medical body area network" devices, which will allow doctors and nurses to monitor patient vital signs wirelessly. The United States is the first nation to set aside bandwidth for that purpose.

Although some hospitals already use wireless monitoring, healthcare technology manufacturers like GE Healthcare say having a dedicated spectrum paves the way to develop a new line of wireless physiological sensors. Low-powered, disposable sensors that stick to the body like a Band-Aid could log body temperature, heart rhythm, or respiratory health.

GE had been pushing for patient monitoring bandwidth since 2007. Under the new FCC rules, patient devices will share a slice of spectrum with the aerospace industry, which uses the same communications band for commercial flight tests. Hospitals must shut off wireless monitors when a patient leaves the building.

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Proponents of the technology claim it will save the healthcare industry $2,000 to $12,000 per patient. Besides cutting down on cable clutter in hospitals, the sensors should permit patients to live at home with a web-connected receiver while their doctors remotely keep track of abnormalities, such as irregular heartbeat, online. Insurance companies might not cover in-home use of the new devices, though.

Silence game

Chen jianhua yy/Imaginechina/AP

China's most popular microblogging website has joined the nation's government in thwarting free speech. Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service where 300 million registered users post their thoughts or pass along news, has imposed a new "user contract" that punishes members for spreading rumors, harming national unity, promoting superstition, calling for protests, or making personal attacks. The site uses a point system, where users begin with 80 points but gradually lose them if Sina Weibo censors determine they've violated the speech rules. Members can report other members, and when someone's points fall to zero, the account is deleted.

A Sina executive claimed the company devised the point system on its own, but some users suspect Chinese authorities pressured Sina Weibo to crack down on the political and social commentary flowing through the site. Last December authorities decided to force microblogging sites to register the real names of users. On March 31 Sina Weibo shut down its comment function for three days after the site went abuzz with news about a scandal involving Bo Xilai, a disgraced Communist Party official. -Daniel James Devine

Romantic robbery

Hemera Technologies/Photos.com

A newly released FBI report of internet fraud during 2011 noted 5,663 complaints over "romance scams," a type of fraud that is robbing jilted victims of millions of dollars. Scammers search dating or social networking sites to find a lonely soul interested in starting a relationship, then use poetry, gifts, and sweet nothings to convince the person he or she has found a lover. The scammers arouse empathy by telling stories of personal tragedy or hardship, and ask for money to help with financial problems. Victims-often middle-aged women-reported sending a staggering $8,900, on average, to online lovers who disappeared. The fraud totaled $50 million last year, excluding unreported incidents. -Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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