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Healthcare Wireless Network Deployments Facing Challenges

Healthcare organizations face unique challenges when deploying wireless networks.

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- Healthcare organizations traditionally have a difficult time deploying wireless networks due to the nature of healthcare facilities. With the rise of connected medical devices and IoT devices, it’s becoming more important for organizations to plan wireless networks with the coverage and capacity to support all devices.

“In a healthcare setting, the network has to be extremely reliable because it’s literally life or death,” Aruba Networks Product Marketing Manager Rick Reid told HITInfrastructure.com. “You have to plan coverage capacity, backup systems, and application intelligence just to make sure that things work - and that they work 24/7.”

Coverage is the first step in planning a wireless deployment. The active nature of healthcare professionals adds to the importance of being constantly connected. Mobile devices need a reliable wireless connection everywhere to be able to alert users and give them continuous access to the information they need.

“You have to build a network for coverage. The devices have to work everywhere,” said Reid. “Once a hospital moves to that critical communication method you have to make sure it works in the stairwell and it works in the hallways, and you can’t have any dead spots.”

Clinicians carrying WiFi enabled devices often choose to use stairwells over elevators, especially in emergency or urgent situations. The network needs to extend to these types of situations and work with the workflow habits of the organization.

In addition to internal coverage obstacles, organizations in urban areas are also faced with deployment challenges.

Healthcare organizations in urban areas often purchase buildings that were not built for a modern health IT infrastructure. Certain materials may dull wireless signals and older floor layouts may not be conducive to a wireless network layout.

Organizations in urban environments may also find that their wireless network conflicts with other networks in the area.

“Urban areas aren’t necessarily what we would call planned construction,” Reid stated.  “A hospital will start off relatively small, and will acquire the building next door and another building next door. There’s a lot of old construction and a lot of concrete, not designed for the open plans we’re seeing in new construction. There’s a lot of hallways, especially in certain areas of the hospital.

In radiology, for example, there’s a lot of metal in the walls, a lot of shielding, which makes radio frequency (RF) propagation very difficult.”

Network capacity is another challenge facing health IT infrastructure wireless deployment. The amount of connected medical devices has grown exponentially over the past several years. The connectivity these devices demand can put serious strain on a wireless network and slow down operations.

“An average hospital room will have between 15 and 20 medical devices, and almost all of them will be networked,” explained Reid. “That’s a pretty high density if you think about the size of an ICU room, which is usually about 15’x15’ with 20 devices in it - and the room next door has 20 devices in it. A ward typically has 20 beds, so that’s quite a lot of devices in a relatively small area.”

The network must also be able to support all connected medical devices during high capacity periods and prioritize signals to ensure that mission critical and urgent data takes precedence over personal correspondence and lower priority tasks. Furthermore, the network must tell the difference between a clinician viewing an electronic health record (EHR) in an emergency room versus an exam room.

“It has to be designed just like air traffic control,” Extreme Networks Healthcare Solutions Director Bob Zemke told  HITInfrastructure.com. “We have to look at the critical devices and how to prioritize them. We start with mission critical systems, life critical, telemetry, emergency communications, nurse call, then we look at maybe the business applications and systems, and everything else needed to support the clinicians' access and their devices. What bandwidth is left, you typically have to provide for the patients.”

To combat these challenges, organizations can enlist the help of expert consultants who specialize in healthcare wireless deployments to ensure that all potential network obstacles are identified and dealt with accordingly.

Organizations can also conduct wireless site surveys to identify physical network obstacles and map out hotspots and dead zones for better access point placement.