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Healthcare Wireless Network Coverage, Capacity Top Challenge

Wireless network coverage and capacity is a major challenge for organizations deploying upgraded networks for mobile and connected medical devices.

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- Healthcare organizations deploying wireless networks are often concerned about planning for capacity and coverage, especially with the number of mobile devices and connected medical devices present in modern hospitals.

Aruba Networks Product Marketing Manager Rick Reid expressed several challenges healthcare organizations face when deploying a wireless network. While it does bear some resemblance to struggles other enterprise industries face, healthcare remains a unique challenge for IT departments, users, and vendors alike.

“Healthcare wireless deployments match what we were seeing in the enterprise ten years ago which was very limited,” Reid told HITInfrastructure.com. “Not a lot of devices needed wireless networks and in the imaging world, the wireless network was really too slow to make imaging all that useful. Guest access was just coming online.”

After the introduction of voice over IP, replacing traditional landlines with mobile devices, coverage became one of the most important features of a wireless healthcare wireless solution.

“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.”

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In addition to mobile devices, connected medical devices are now required to have wireless cards. Every medical and biomedical device is potentially connected to the wired or wireless network, and each device has to work everywhere.

“An average hospital room will have between 15 and 20 medical devices, and almost all of them will be networked, either wired or wireless,” Reid explained. “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 is typically 20 beds, so that’s quite a lot of devices in a relatively small area.”

“Larger hospital networks can have something like 30,000 computers connected to their network, and they have over 85,000 connected medical devices. That’s the challenge, it’s just numbers and then trying to understand what those devices are trying to do.”

The connected medical devices put a lot of strain on the network, making dense networks a priority for hospitals. Hospitals are not only faced with coverage issues, but have to plan for high density areas within critical areas. The network also has to understand each device and what that device is  trying to do.

“A heartrate monitor sends very little data. It just sends a small packet every few seconds. A portable x-ray machine sends huge files that need to be delivered across the hospital to radiology so radiology can read it and see what’s going on,” Reid reported. “Images Gigabytes in size need to be transferred. It’s just understanding what the traffic pattern of the devices is and how to build the network capacity to support it.”

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The actual building can be the biggest challenge for wireless deployment because the network often has to be retrofit to a building rather than constructed with certain requirements in mind.

“We’re seeing  much easier deployments in newer hospitals being built in the suburbs or smaller cities, because it’s a lot easier to plan for the network,” Reid observed.

“Simple coverage planning is a challenge, especially for hospitals in urban areas,” he continued. “Urban areas aren’t necessarily what we would call planned construction. 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. They’re 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, like radiology. There’s a lot of metal in the walls, a lot of shielding, which makes radio frequency (RF) propagation very difficult.”

Planning a wireless network in a hospital is difficult because hospitals are in constant operation. Organizations need to know how to shut down an ICU to hang a new access point (AP) in the ceiling.

“There are rules about cleanliness, and about sterility. If you open the ceiling tile in a hospital room, that’s actually a violation of a clean room operation, and the AP needs to be sterilized. You really have to plan the deployment, not only from an RF perspective, but from a logistics perspective as well,” Reid explained.

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Reid advises healthcare organizations to carefully plan deployments and bring in a vendor consultant or partner that specializes in hospital wireless network deployment to ensure the organization is getting the most out of its network.