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Challenges Facing Large-Scale Healthcare Wireless Deployment

Addressing challenges commonly found in large-scale healthcare network deployment will greatly improve speed and security for end users.

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

Deploying a large-scale wireless network is a serious undertaking for any healthcare organization. Hospitals don’t see a lot of downtime in network traffic because of around-the-clock operation, which can put strain on the most reliable wireless networks. Medical centers located in several buildings or in big cities need to have even coverage and can be negatively affected by other networks in the area.

Healthcare network challenges.

Employees and guests have certain expectations for wireless speed and efficiency which become harder to meet for larger organizations. The latest mobile and medical devices are useless if the wireless network is not capable of handling them all at peak hours.

Guest network deployment sets hospitals apart from other organizations. Patients and families can spend a significant amount of time visiting loved ones in the hospital and it’s common for them to seek entertainment by using streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. These services take up large amounts of bandwidth, slowing down other guests’ access and potentially causing IT to spend time maintaining the guest network rather than the organization’s own network.

Health data security is the biggest concern for healthcare organizations when it comes to wireless networks. HIPAA compliance makes Wi-Fi network security a priority for any deployment. AHIMA states that one of the biggest concerns healthcare organizations have is wireless network security being as secure as traditional wired networks.

Wireless networks can be as secure as wired networks, but they need to be deployed and secured properly. Wi-Fi waves are public so a physical connection is no longer needed for unwanted outsiders to connect to the network, which poses different security concerns than wired networks. Encrypting data is the first line of defense when deploying a wireless network so if a hack occurs, the information is unreadable.

Capacity limitations represent another challenge requiring careful planning. The most common capacity limitation is not having enough access points (APs) to support every user during high traffic hours. Placing APs incorrectly can cause them to interfere with each other, severely decreasing their capacity. Facilities located in busier areas such as urban environments can experience capacity limitations from outside networks in close proximity.

Wi-Fi-enabled medical devices and mobile devices constantly connecting to the network themselves warrant the need for increased capacity. Legacy network standards such as 802.11n and 802.11g will struggle in this scenario because they can only send one signal to one device at a time. The 802.11ac standard uses multi-user, multi-input, multi-output (MU-MIMO) technology that greatly increases the capacity for devices that require constant connections.

Density requirements are high for healthcare organizations and can be difficult to fully support. Periods of high demand are inevitable and having a network than can handle more traffic than normal will ensure that no lag is experienced during these times. Outside interference or jammed APs can prevent full functionality, so having extra bandwidth maneuverability will be needed in high-density situations.  

Covering an entire physical area is also a challenge. Enterprise-level APs are an expensive investment and can sometimes make covering certain areas a challenge especially when it comes to hospital campuses with outdoor areas and buildings that are spread out.

Solving capacity, density, and coverage issues can be dealt with by conducting a site survey. These surveys determine where to place APs for the best connections and help prevent overloading APs in areas with higher traffic to meet density requirements. Site surveys can also detect how a healthcare organization’s network is affected by those around i, and plan how to prevent interference.

The key to solving these issues in a healthcare environment is making sure the entire network is functioning at the same level. Upgrading APs that tend to have higher capacity and density demands will act as a band-aid fix and improve connectivity for those areas, but they may hinder progress once the entire network is ready for an upgrade. Large-scale Wi-Fi deployment is about covering all the bases. Sometimes quick fixes are necessary to improve problem areas, but it’s important to consider and incorporate these changes into a full upgrade once the time is right.

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