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Building Scalable Healthcare Internet of Things Networks

The expansion of the healthcare Internet of Things calls for organizations to reassess their wireless networking strategy.

healthcare internet of things

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Network connections continue to be a challenge as healthcare organizations improve their healthcare Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure.

“The rising demand of chronic disease management, better connectivity between doctors and patients, and enhanced drug delivery systems in healthcare sectors have created the demand for IoT in the healthcare sector,” said a recent Research and Markets report.  

“In addition, the IoT allows devices to be interconnected with each other to improve patient monitoring, patient outcomes, decrease in errors and other benefits, which is likely to boost the market growth,” report authors continued. “Due to the introduction of IoT in healthcare, the efficiency, effectiveness and quality of the service in healthcare has improved.”

While the introduction of IoT and connected medical devices has improved patient care, organizations may run into problems when onboarding too many devices for the network to handle. Not only do providers need to make sure their wireless network is robust enough to handle the increased traffic, but they also need to figure out how to make connected devices available everywhere from clinicians moving throughout the facility and patients receiving care via telehealth programs.

Many organizations don’t fully understand the strain they put their Wi-Fi under or what kinds of challenges arise with connecting devices. Not addressing these connectivity issues can significantly waste time and money, according to MGM Solutions CEO Michael Maurer.

READ MORE: Top 3 Ways to Succeed with Healthcare IoT, Mobile Device Strategies

How wireless signals will be able to penetrate physical barriers is one of the biggest signaling challenges healthcare organizations will face.

Older facilities made of concrete or buildings that were not originally built with wireless access in mind are especially challenging for introducing wireless devices into the health IT infrastructure.

Physical signal obstacles are often not considered when provider locations and building materials are selected. Urban healthcare organizations that are looking to expand their medical campus will often purchase older buildings or buildings that were originally intended for a different purpose.

“Wi-Fi uses such a high frequency and the higher the frequency, the smaller the electrical sign wave,” Maurer explained. “The smaller the electrical sign wave, the more resistant it is to penetrating the different materials of construction that are found in facilities.”

This can cause problems when clinicians move through a facility made of different building material. The device will always search for the strongest signal. Every healthcare facility is different, and this can make it difficult to plan an effective wireless network.

READ MORE: How IoT, Edge Computing Can Impact HIT Infrastructure in 2018

“Health systems that spend millions of dollars upgrading and modernizing their network will still dynamically change because they’re adding new things to the building and they’re bringing in new equipment,” said Medigram CEO Sherri Douville. “There’s no one-time view of the network.”

A wireless vendor can help assess the healthcare facility, plan where access points need to be placed, and conduct a wireless site survey to see where connectivity is the weakest.

At Marin General Hospital in California, executives found that a network assessment and site survey illuminated challenges that weren’t immediately obvious.

“All of the wireless site surveys I have been a part of include radio frequency,” said Marin Information Security and Customer Experience Manager Jason Johnson. “When we did our last survey, we moved some microwave ovens around as a result.”

“You'll never get 100 percent coverage, but a solid site survey, strategic placement of APs, serious thought given to density, proper channel configuration, and solid handoff configuration should help,” he continued. “It's much easier said than done—its more art than science in some cases, especially with so many types of interference.”

READ MORE: Healthcare IoT Infrastructure Relies on Device-to-Cloud Security

The challenges of healthcare IoT connections don’t end with Wi-Fi networks. Many organizations are turning to cellular connections to help balance out traffic, and connect devices used by mobile clinicians and telehealth monitoring devices.

Cellular, at times, can be more reliable than Wi-Fi for smartphones and tablets.

“Healthcare organizations use cellular because it’s the only reliable way to really communicate with the devices,” said Taoglas Co-Founder and Co-CEO Dermot O’Shea. “If you’re only using Wi-Fi then you’re relying on the user, patient, or caregiver to do all the Wi-Fi connectivity in terms of selecting the Wi-Fi network and putting in the password.” 

“Cellular is more robust in an environment,” he continued. “It’s never a problem if too many people are using cellular to log onto the network like it is with Wi-Fi. That’s often the problem in a hospital; there’s too many people using the network at the same time and it slows down the network.”

Each healthcare organization has different networking needs that become a larger challenge as IoT devices continue to join the network. Organizations should assess and survey their facility, fleshing out a scalable and realistic way to best utilize different networking methods to create a scalable networking infrastructure.

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