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A Better Connection

October 28, 2008
by Kate Huvane Gamble
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Managing an effective wireless strategy extends far beyond infrastructure issues

Mike davis

Mike Davis

According to a report from New York-based Kalorama Information, the total United States healthcare market for wireless technologies in 2007 was valued at $2.7 billion. This figure, it states, is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 29.5 percent to reach $9.6 billion by 2012.

The potential for wireless technologies in the hospital setting is, as they say, ‘sky-high.’ As technology advances and additional wireless applications enter the market, it will be increasingly more critical that CIOs have a solid strategy in place.

As CIOs are learning, there are several aspects in the development and maintenance of a wireless strategy. Key pieces include identifying primary drivers, determining how to most effectively link wireless strategy with clinical goals, building a sufficient infrastructure, and establishing an appropriate guiding philosophy. Once that's been established, says Mike Davis, executive vice president at the Chicago-based HIMSS Analytics, the sky truly is the limit.

“One of the great things about wireless technologies is that there's a lot you can do with it. I'm always amazed at how some people are using it to improve their efficiency and operations or patient care,” Davis says. “The challenge isn't, 'do we put wireless in?' Almost every hospital environment I can think of has wireless. The issue is, ‘how do you use it and how well do you use it?’”

When Ellen Swoger was hired as CIO at Methodist Medical Center of Illinois (MMCI) — a 353-bed rural hospital located in Peoria, Ill. — in 2005, the organization was experiencing problems with its wireless network, which she says was about three- to four-years-old. Tired of dealing with spotty cell phone coverage, the organization's leaders began examining their options.

“We started evaluating where we wanted to go in the future and what kinds of other things were we looking at from an organizational perspective and from a technology perspective,” Swoger says. She and her team had already discussed deploying asset and patient tracking down the road; therefore, they needed a solid network. That network needed to have infrastructure in place to support robust future applications, without having to add more wires. With this in mind, Swoger selected the Enterprise Access wireless infrastructure from United Kingdom-based GE Healthcare.

MMCI was already utilizing monitoring equipment from GE, so when IT leadership opted to add some telemetry wiring, it was a no-brainer to go to the same source. “It kind of came up at the same time that we needed to wire some additional units and we were rehabbing some units, so that was timely,” Swoger says. The goal was to set it up so that the entire organization didn't need to be rewired for future roll-outs such as RFID. “We will, of course, have to add access points and add different software components to facilitate the tracking, but the wiring itself is pretty much all there.”
Kara marx

Kara Marx

Concerns about access points and coverage will always be present in the development and maintenance of a wireless strategy — from the planning stages through go-live, and beyond, Davis says. “Anytime you start to extend your capabilities and add more technologies, infrastructure is always going to be something the CIOs have to go back and look at, and say, ‘Do we need to improve our infrastructure, or maybe change some technologies,’” he says. “You have to look at your networks, the number of processors you have — all of that comes into play.”

Infrastructure, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. For Swoger and her team, strategic planning may start with wireless, but the end goal is focused on clinical outcomes.

“We tie all of the things that we do and the technologies that we bring in here to our strategic plan, and the things that we focus on are clinical quality, safety, patient satisfaction and clinician satisfaction,” Swoger says. “We didn't just look at it from an infrastructure perspective, although you have to have an infrastructure, otherwise you can't put applications out there. But we had the goal in mind to improve our clinician satisfaction, especially with physicians that used cell phones in the organization who really couldn't get good coverage.”

After implementing the network, MMCI's team rolled out a wireless phone system from Morrisville, N.C.-based Ascom, which was tied to the nurse call system. This, Swoger says, enables patients to directly contact a nurse using a call button located at the bedside. The nurse can then answer as if he or she is on a regular call; if the nurse is not available, the call rolls over to a nurse aid.

“It's a great way to leverage wireless to improve patient satisfaction,” Swoger says. “They get an immediate response rather than waiting for a nurse to answer a panel at the nursing station.”