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Considerations for Connected Medical Device Networks

The increased number of connected medical devices requires careful consideration of on-premises and broadband network connections.

Connected medical devices

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Connected medical devices are becoming a more vital part of health IT infrastructure as more Internet of Things (IoT) devices are introduced into healthcare networks.

Today, most medical devices are required to have networking capabilities. Healthcare organizations must consider their network before attempting to connect all their devices.

Connected medical devices include biomedical devices, physiological monitors, mobile medical apps, and MRI/CT/ultrasound scanners.

Connected medical devices communicating with the network serve several purposes. The devices constantly transmit data from patients and clinicians that can be used for analytics purposes or improved operations.

Connected medical devices also communicate when maintenance is required to improve the devices’ longevity.

The increasing number of devices demanding access to wireless networks can overwhelm legacy systems, leading to access problems. Once an organization has its entire facility covered with a basic network, it must ensure that the network is robust enough to meet expectations.  

The average hospital room can contain as many as 15 to 20 medical devices. That number is multiplied further when the number of rooms is in a hospital ward is considered.

There can be as many as three or four times more IoT connected medical devices in a provider building than traditional networked devices such as laptops, or smartphones. A large hospital can potentially be facing as many as 85,000 IoT devices in comparison to 30,000 traditional networked devices.

The volume of devices often can’t be supported by an on-premises network infrastructure alone. Wearable and remote devices depend on constant connections. A patient monitoring device can’t depend on the patient’s home Wi-Fi network because it can be inconsistent and unreliable. The patient can also lose vital connectivity while moving, which takes away the device’s mobile capabilities.

Healthcare organizations need to consider what IoT devices are strictly on-premises and which need to be mobilized. This helps entities determine how their network needs to be upgraded or designed to handle the influx of traffic.

Wider bandwidths are the first thing to consider. Entities cannot afford network downtime, especially during peak hours. Upgrading to 802.11ac access points creates a much wider duel-band technology (2.4GHz and 5GHz) to prevent bottle-necking and service outages due to too much traffic.

The 802.11ac wireless standard uses a wider bandwidth along with multi-user multi-input/multi-output (MU-MIMO) technology to allow more signals to pass at once.

MIMO started with the previous wireless standard, 802.11n. MIMO uses multiple antennas to send and receive more than one data signal at a time. With 802.11n, these multiple signals could still only be transmitted to one user at a time.

MU-MIMO also uses the same multi-antenna concept, but data can now be transmitted to multiple users at the same time, increasing speeds for users.

Further research into faster wireless standards is still being conducted with many researchers and vendors preparing for WiGig to be the next standard.

WiGig goes beyond standard dual-band 802.11ac technology by enabling the use of a third 60GHz band. The WiGig band allows extremely high frequency transmissions by directing data into a wider channel.

WiGig is only effective for the devices in close proximity to the access point, which isn’t beneficial to mobile users. However, deploying WiGig technology in designated ‘hotspots’ would take a significant load off the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

Advanced on-premises network deployments are necessary for future IoT and connected medical device use, but healthcare organizations also need to consider broadband internet for mobile devices. Telemedicine and mHealth tools and technologies often depend on broadband access.

For example, the telemedicine program at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, Missouri uses 4G technology so remote clinicians can quickly and securely connect to the datacenter.

Children’s Mercy recently implemented Cradlepoint technology to utilize 4G in the place of patients’ in-home wireless network. Clinicians were running into problems because patient networks were not always reliable and not all patients have wireless networks in their homes.

The impending release of 5G broadband will potentially expand telemedicine and mHealth services even further by providing faster connections.

Healthcare organizations need to be aware of how connected medical and IoT devices are being used and how they connect to the network. This can help entities determine how their networks need to be deployed and what they need to include.