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Consistent connectivity a pillar of Wi-Fi deployment

Wi-Fi in healthcare facilities is troubled by spotty coverage and physicians' mistrust of its ability to secure their communications.

Wi-Fi technology is transforming how information is being managed, accessed and collected in healthcare organizations....

Despite the many apparent benefits of Wi-Fi, effective widespread Wi-Fi deployment within hospitals and other healthcare organizations is not without its challenges.

Spotty, unreliable coverage hinders Wi-Fi usage

For providers to effectively use wireless devices such as tablets, smartphones and other tools (e.g., Voice over Wi-Fi) that rely on Wi-Fi, healthcare organizations must provide reliable and consistent Wi-Fi coverage throughout their facilities.  Some of the common Wi-Fi problems experienced by healthcare professionals stem from poor connectivity, including spotty coverage, dead coverage areas and unstable mobile connectivity.

Poor Wi-Fi coverage in healthcare facilities is caused, at least in part, by the fact that healthcare facilities often present a harsh environment for Wi-Fi. This challenge was detailed in a blog on wireless networking in hospitals that stated, "Old buildings, varying building materials and layouts, hundreds of metal beds and electronic devices moving throughout the hallways all add up to a very harsh environment from a radio frequency perspective."

Security and privacy concerns

Privacy and security are two additional concerns that are often barriers to Wi-Fi deployment in healthcare facilities. Despite the continual growth of Wi-Fi use in healthcare, a study by PwC suggested that only "around half of doctors believe that the mobile Internet at their workplace is secure." Interestingly, the same report stated, "45% of doctors believe outdated regulations from earlier technology is holding up mHealth."

The bottom line is healthcare organizations must ensure the security and privacy of all information that is shared over Wi-Fi networks. The organization must protect clinical and administrative information related to operations of the facility, as well as private information accessed by patients or staff on their own devices. Security is one concern that may be delaying hospital-wide Wi-Fi rollout intended for patient use. According to an article on ComputerWeekly.com, security is one of the main reasons the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K. has not widely rolled-out Wi-Fi for patients.

The article repeated a sentiment often heard from wireless detractors: "Many still view wireless networks as less secure than wired."  It continues by stressing the need to separate the publicly available network from the network on which the EHR sits, and to explore the challenge of maintaining a secure separation while simultaneously using the same access points.

Compounding the issue of Wi-Fi security is the additional governance and monitoring associated with Wi-Fi networks. According to an article on wireless security in the BYOD era, the strategies and solutions for providing security on Wi-Fi networks may be different from those used on traditional networks. Due to the lack of a network perimeter, it is necessary to continually monitor Wi-Fi networks to see who is using the network, when they're connecting, what devices and applications are connecting, and how much bandwidth is being consumed. In addition, to maintain the convenience and preserve benefits of Wi-Fi in healthcare facilities, security should be enforced without interrupting end users' online routines.

Wi-Fi security worries not baseless

Concerns about Wi-Fi security in healthcare are certainly not unfounded. Recent reports have stated that many commonly used wireless routers are unnervingly easy to hack. For example, Independent Security Evaluators recently determined that 13 common off-the-shelf wireless routers can be exploited by a "moderately skilled adversary with LAN [local area network] or WLAN [wireless LAN] access."

Ensuring the security of wireless networks takes more than simply changing the default administrator password on such devices; improved Wi-Fi security depends on the router vendors improving the devices with enhanced firmware and other upgrades.  A write-up on that same wireless report shared, "all 13 routers evaluated can be taken over from the local network, with four of those requiring no active management session" and 11 of the routers were able to be compromised via a wireless network connection.

Although secure Wi-Fi depends on having the latest firmware installed on wireless access points, healthcare organizations can take steps to help secure their Wi-Fi networks. Many of the recommended safety practices seem like common sense, but they are not universally followed. For example, a recent survey found that 30% of IT professionals in the U.S. and U.K. don't change the default password on their wireless routers. Of that same group, 55% of respondents don't switch the default IP address on their routers.

Wi-Fi offers the potential to help transform healthcare by ensuring critical administrative and clinical information is available, and can be entered and shared whenever and wherever necessary.  With this convenience also comes the responsibility for healthcare organizations to ensure Wi-Fi is secure, so any information being transmitted over wireless networks is protected.

About the author: 
Trevor Strome, M.S., PMP, leads the development of informatics and analytics tools that enable evidence-informed decision making by clinicians and healthcare leaders. His experience spans public, private and startup-phase organizations. A popular speaker, author and blogger, Strome is the founder of HealthcareAnalytics.info; his book, Healthcare Analytics for Quality and Performance Improvement, was recently published by John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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This was last published in February 2015

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