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Wireless network management, monitoring constant concerns at hospitals

For hospitals, wireless network management means watching for interference, spotty coverage or equipment that otherwise interferes with the signal. Thick skin sometimes is a plus.

As hospital Wi-Fi networks take on large amounts of diverse traffic, IT pros are discovering clever wireless network management best practices for getting the most out of their investments.

At the Seattle-based Swedish Medical Center, IT Director Steve Horsley is gathering his share of workstations on wheels (WOWs), thanks to his "Easy Button." When pressed, the Easy Button alerts IT via a real-time location system (RTLS) enabled by radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, and pinpoints where an IT staffer can pick up a stray WOW.

"In a wired world, doctors and nurses are much more diligent about calling the service desk. With a mobile device, they might shove it in the corner and grab another one until there are none left," Horsley said.

Curing spotty Wi-Fi network coverage

As indicated in a related tip, Hospital wireless network planning requires thinking ahead, implementing a hospital wireless network should be preceded by a thorough site survey to determine the best locations for wireless access points. Once your network is up and running, your work will not be over, however: Wi-Fi signal coverage will continue to be your highest priority and biggest worry.

"[Wireless] network management and monitoring are really key. You have to watch carefully for any drops. That's the death knell for a clinician," said Jack Santos, a Gartner Inc. analyst and former CIO at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H.

Curtis Larsen, senior wireless engineer at University of Utah Health Care in Salt Lake City, reported having issues with rogue access points in clinical areas. Often it's because users are trying to accomplish something on their own, he said.

In one instance, an IT manager was trying to provide wireless access to a wired subnetwork: "He decided to plug in an access point," Larsen explained. "So, we sat down and discussed his needs, and found out we could do the same thing over the central wireless solution, allowing access to those who needed it based on their identity."

New equipment that might cause interference is brought into hospitals all the time, even though an initial test might find a clear Wi-Fi signal. Tom Cotter, enterprise network advisory specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, contacts vendors of wireless hospital equipment before any network upgrade, to make sure the equipment has been certified not to interfere, he said.

Larsen, meanwhile, is deploying 3500 Series access points from Cisco Systems Inc. These include a spectrum analysis feature, through which the access points push alerts to a wireless network management and monitoring tool whenever interference is detected, he said.

Installing access points is made easier with open communications among hospital staff members. For example, it pays to coordinate with building security to make sure surveillance cameras don't interfere with wireless devices, Larsen said.

In addition to tracking WOWs, computers on wheels (COWs) and a plethora of medical devices, many hospitals are looking ahead to the use of their RTLS infrastructure to track patients using RFID-enabled wristbands. Patients with Alzheimer's disease in particular are thought to be good candidates for future RTLS deployments. Swedish Medical Center's Horsley is considering such an implementation -- but over a separate infrared network instead of the hospital's 802.11 Wi-Fi network, to avoid interfering with other systems.

Because most doctors, nurses, patients and visitors have cell phones, and because cellular coverage inside a multistory hospital can be spotty, enabling cell phones to send and receive calls over the Wi-Fi network is becoming a priority for many hospital CIOs. "Many cell phones have Wi-Fi capabilities. And many carriers can take calls that get routed to them from a Wi-Fi network," noted Chad Neal, director of technology at The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

Key to wireless network management: Knowing when to say when

Tablet devices, once thought to be an attractive solution for doctors and nurses, remain rare at many hospitals. That might change with such devices as Apple Inc.'s iPad and Cisco's Cius. Hospital IT pros are taking note. "The doctors are very excited about it. People who use the iPhone and iPod touch are excited" about the iPad, Neal said.

Wireless network management and monitoring are really key. You have to watch carefully for any drops. That's the death knell for a clinician.

Jack Santos, analyst, Gartner Inc.

Neal is on guard, however: "With the iPad, there is a lot of buzz, but it's very challenging for us to identify the business value. One of the strengths of the iPad is the touch-screen, but most applications require a keyboard, although you could use the virtual keyboard," he said, adding that ultimately, "it's not an enterprise-friendly device. It's hard to manage."

That points to the biggest challenge for IT pros as hospital Wi-Fi networks take on increased traffic from many different devices: just saying no. "Every day there's a new service that wants to use the wireless network. There will be more business needs than available bandwidth," the Swedish Medical Center's Horsley said.

Even the additional bandwidth that will come with 802.11n upgrades isn't limitless and will only delay the hard choices that will have to be made. "At some point, we'll have to pick and choose what services to run on the network," Horsley said.

The desire to expand the number of services that use the wireless network also must be weighed against increasingly strict security and compliance regulations for patient information. With such critical data on the network, restricting which services use the network and when might turn into a sound wireless network management policy.

Stan Gibson is a Boston-based contributing writer. Let us know what you think about the story; email

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