Hospitals looking to implement electronic health records or provide telemedicine services should not overlook the importance of a reliable wireless network. Yet hospitals face a number of unique challenges with Wi-Fi, from lead-lined walls to radio frequency interference. A HIMSS Industry Solutions Webinar, Making healthier Wi-Fi decisions, highlighted recent technical advances that could help put hospitals on the road to better Wi-Fi service.
The online seminar featured a discussion with Terry Ammons, network administrator for Satilla Health Services in Waycross, Ga., about his recent hospital Wi-Fi upgrade. Ammons’ team began noticing problems with the hospital’s Wi-Fi coverage as more wireless devices came onto the network, he said. Satilla Health clinicians use a wide variety of wireless handheld devices, from personal digital assistants and bar code scanners to carts on wheels, or COWs. There were coverage holes in the Wi-Fi network, and some clients would routinely drop off, causing daily calls to the help desk.
The IT staff at Satilla Health believe that telemedicine and teleconferencing will play a strong role in the future, and, because they were upgrading, they wanted to ensure they had the best-of-breed wireless connectivity available for these services. Satilla Health is not using Wi-Fi currently for video communication, but it wants a wireless network fast and stable enough to simulate a LAN-based experience. For example, the hospital is testing a product called Advanced ICU, a telemedicine cart that allows a nurse in the intensive care unit to press an “easy button,” bringing up a doctor on the monitor who can help with a patient diagnosis using a camera and microphone. The cart currently is LAN-based, but Ammons sees this type of equipment moving to wireless, and wants to be ready for it.
Satilla Health also is beta-testing the use of iPod Touches to access patient data from the bedside during hospital rounds, and testing iPads to see whether doctors can use them to communicate with each other via voice or even video. All this requires a robust hospital Wi-Fi network.
When it came time to start soliciting and testing vendors, the hospital first looked at Cisco Systems, then added Aruba Networks, Meru Networks and Ruckus Wireless to the comparison mix, Ammons said. His team put every vendor through the same thorough testing process using a variety of tools including IxChariot, Qcheck and HeatMapper. They surveyed the facility, tested for packet loss and throughout performance, and measured for streaming capacity. The team tried everything they could to “break the equipment,” Ammons said: They tested in closets and bathrooms, holding laptops in different positions, even moving access points in and out of the ceiling. In the end the hospital selected Ruckus Wireless, which demonstrated double the throughput as the other vendors’ products at the same distances. After installation, the team ran all the same tests again using the same testing tools.
As far as security goes, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA privacy requirements are always a top concern. Satilla Health uses Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 with Advanced Encryption Standard encryption on almost all its wireless LANs. The hospital also looked into several wireless intrusion detection systems, but didn’t find the features it was looking for. Ammons is confident the hospital’s LAN-based intrusion detection and traffic anomaly appliances will catch any rogue devices, he said, and he’s hoping the LAN system is enough to keep the wireless network secure. “If you access our wireless system, you have to transverse through our switch sooner or later, and we’re going to catch you,” he said.
Looking to the future, Satilla Health would like to implement Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) if they can get it approved, Ammons said. The hospital’s administration denied the request for VoIP after a bad experience with equipment (IT staff had to use Super Glue to fix phones). Video distribution and digital signage also are on the table for possible implementation. The hospital would like to have monitors in patient rooms that provide a video introduction of the assigned nurse, Ammons said, so that new patients can get to know their nurses even before they walk into the room.