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Wireless in Healthcare

December 16, 2008
by daphne
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Yesterday, I logged onto an HCI webinar on “Wireless in Healthcare, and I’m glad I attended the webinar, because it was very informative, and told me a lot about using wireless in the healthcare setting. It featured three speakers: Jeff Schou, the Sr. Director of the Global Healthcare Solutions Group for Motorola Inc., Greg Knight, Wireless Network Architect for the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) Health System, and finally, Dr. Amit Sinha, who is Fellow & Chief Technologist of Motorola's Enterprise Wireless LAN division.

Greg, whose Alabama hospital has 900 beds, talked about his firsthand experience at UAB in implementing wireless system, driven mainly by their core clinical system replacement (Cerner). Real life examples of wireless security risks like rogue access points reminded me of how critical security can be in a hospital, and the operational problems like “slow “ or “disconnected” spoke to real user issues. He also talked about how he went through his selection criteria for the AirDefense system--it’s always useful to hear how someone else decided on a product, especially if you’re out there looking yourself. His operational war stories (like 14 rogues the Monday after Christmas!) were a real wake up call to anyone who is upgrading their wireless.

The webinar started a few minutes after I had just run back to the office from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan and I was still sort of breathless. I was at St. Vincent’s to get a look at their server room, because they’re building a brand new, all digital hospital; though they haven’t broken ground yet, they are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes preliminary work on their IT infrastructure. They’ve gone to virtualization, and their server room (actually offsite, an entire leased floor in a modern building hard on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan) was an amazing testament to the benefit of virtualization. There were stacks and stacks of servers and equipment now out of commission, replaced by one skinny box that ran the whole show. The CIO and VP of Client Services were justifiably proud—their footprint has shrunk 75 percent, they can move lots more data, and the environmental benefits were smack in my face as I looked at all that out-of-service equipment. It’s a lights out datacenter and it was cool to see all the old backup tapes that actually used to rely on people. Don’t worry, I took lots of pictures, and you’ll be able to see them when I post my virtual hospital tour of St. Vincent’s—it includes a demo patient room for the new hospital they set up in the old hospital that they use it to engage staff in feedback and to generate a sense of excitement about what’s coming. There’s a lot to be excited about because believe me, this digital patient room DOES look like the future.

So that’s what I REALLY wanted to blog about. But hey, guess I just did.

If you want to look at another virtual hospital tour (they’re pretty neat), they’re here. You can listen to the webinar here.



My experience is that the larger and the more affluent healthcare delivery systems all have, over the last 3-5 years, put in vistor wifi. It's typically campus-wide, and is managed entirely separately (i.e. not on the hospital's wired and wireless care-supporting network).

The recent HCI webinar cited a number of reasons.

  • Patient's with longer stays (e.g. the bone marrow recovery patients) need to 'live' at the hospital.  Living these days includes WiFi, since it includes email and surfing. 
  • Family members who want or need to spend a lot of time in the hospital. 
  • Other 'visitors' including pharmaceutical, technology and supply vendors, colleagues of the hospital staff, etc. 
  • I suspect there's even Press-Gainey data that validates that WiFi dramatically improves "satisfaction."

There's a phenomena identical to "artificial intelligence" that requires WiFi.  People in common conversation are more and more doing a quick Google search to answer every day questions or fill in human memory gaps.  Doing these over typical Blackberries and other 2 and 3G phone connections with the lousy browsers typical of these devices is unsatisfying.  Mobile devices over recent months have dramatically better browsers, and they work dramatically better with WiFi than cellular service.

It's amazing how commonplace ubiquitous connectivity is becoming, and applications that exploit it.  For example, I don't need to listen to the traffic reports on the car radio anymore.  That used to mean waiting for "the eights."  In the MD/DC/VA area, the traffic report on WTOP radio is every ten minutes on the eight.  Then, you get a one-minute, severity-sorted, verbal gush of highway and streetnames impacted.  Thanks to service like Google Maps, available on Blackberries (free), iPhones (free), and almost any other browser with connectivity (free), I get one of these pictures:

 The image on the left is from an iGoogle portal page; on the right, ten minutes later, from an iPhone/iPod Touch screen.  With Wifi, either or both views are nearly instantaneous.  In my hands, using the Verizon service, it can take 15 to 60 seconds to get the same thing over a cellular connection.  Often even longer and less reliable.  Or, I can wait ten minutes for the next traffic report, listen to it for sixty seconds, concentrate on listening, decode if it applies to me, and modify my route to work or home.  (Concentrating and Children-in-the-car don't mix.)

If someone used to Wifi is leaving the hospital after visiting a sick friend, the absence of vistor-access Wifi will be sorely noticed,  especially if they live in areas with lots of red and yellow lines!  That's just one use of an internet service that really shines with WiFi.

For those who haven't listened to the HCI Webinar and reviewed the PDF, you should.  The demand for Wifi is broad and deep already.  Managing Wifi is important; Motorola and UAB did a nice, high-level tutorial.

Very interesting. Some health systems have set up separate wireless networks for patient use that are designed not to interfere with that used by clinicians, but I don't know how common this is. Maybe if the trend toward patient-centric care continues it will become more prevalent, but at this point, it seems like many orgs are experiencing problems with one wireless network and so many users.
Thoughts, Joe or Daphne (or anyone else of course)?

Daphne, Thanks for the observations and the heads-up about the "Making Wireless Work for Healthcare" webinar. It might go without saying for most readers but this is a both free, and a very substantive, authoritative tutorial on a centrally important topic that impacts everyone.

I thought the 35 pages PDF portion was very substantive. I was particularly interested in the extensive treatment of 'rogue' management and people setting up their own access-points.

I had breakfast meeting in a Hilton-chain hotel yesterday. A business colleague was unable to sync his Outlook calendar, even though the wifi connection was initially speedy, and the remote exchange server is known to be high-capacity. He was told that the hotel's wifi provider throttles down connection speed after the first few megabytes of transfer, to protect their in-room paid video service. We didn't know if it was true the experience did match the observed performance profile. Very frustrating.

These issues of how consumers consume bandwidth, whether patients, families, physicians, or other professional visitors to a healthcare system, are rapidly evolving.

In a closely related story, there was a WSJ article within the last week that Google, Amazon, MicroSoft, and others ("

Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web

") were quietly moving away from broadly-defined net-neutrality in their practices. In the WSJ blogs associated with the article, the sources suggested that they were misquoted. The facts outlined, however, were not disputed.  My take:  in order to assure performance, defend against Denial-of-Service attacks, and manage to service-level-agreements, IP traffic management requires a degree of sophistication that ISPs cannot avoid.  It's not likely to be as simple as assuring that no IP packet can skip ahead in line.

Great webinar. Thanks.

(By the way, I'm finding a lot of value in personal desktop virtualization. The technology is has several large performance benefits. In my case, with VMware Fusion.)

I saved that PDF as a referenceit's good, good material.

Joe, I spoke with someone yesterday who told me about some providers in Germany who are doing all meetings off their desktops via their computers' cameras. Think about the savings for a large, spread out organization.
Glad you like the webinar, tooI'm saving that ppt!