- Healthcare wireless network infrastructure issues have plagued healthcare since wireless devices began to be introduced into the industry’s infrastructure. Mobile and other connected medical devices are standard in healthcare organizations, but these devices also bring challenges that can’t be solved overnight.
Connecting devices to the internet and making sure they are receiving the strongest signals seamlessly is the core challenge organizations are facing, and will continue to face in the coming years. While the concept is simple, this is not a cheap or easy process.
“There is no such thing as perfect connectivity,” Medigram CEO Sherri Douville explained to HITInfrastructure.com. “Consumer smartphones were never designed for an industrial environment and there's nothing you can do to fix your network to close that gap.”
Consumer-grade technology cannot function inside a hospital the same way it functions in other environments. Organizations need to understand these challenges and how to overcome them as successfully as possible.
“Just because a regular device helps consumers find the fastest connection, doesn't mean it applies to hospitals and the way the hospitals manage their network structure,” Douville said. “A lot of executives had to buy in on decisions related to infrastructure and networking. They need to understand the distinction between the consumer environment and the hospital environment.”
“The smartphone is a mini computer and the modem needs to allow the data from the cell and the Wi-Fi power to be transformed into voice and text,” she continued. “In order for that to happen, it has to connect to the Internet somehow. It's all related to the signals being able to be available to connect the phone to the Internet.”
Organizations can’t treat all mobile and connected devices the same way. These devices don’t function the same and they need to be considered differently when it comes to approaching how the network will handle connections and how the network needs to be laid out.
“The mobile phone is more like a stroke patient,” Douville explained. “Everything happens fast and it happens quickly. A computer is more like a cancer patient where you have a little bit more time. They are different forms with different anatomy.”
Not only are the computer and the smartphone different kinds of “patients” but it’s the network that determines how well these devices are connecting and sharing information. This variance between devices and the difference between healthcare and consumer devices can cause serious connectivity and compliance issues.
Vendors and developers need to treat hospital environments differently than other verticals because typically, developers working in other industries don’t always have to take into account environmental determinants. Just because something works in a standard business park, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in a hospital.
Businesses in traditional office parks can be up and running with a complete wireless network within days. Hospitals have a unique set of challenges making network installation and upgrading time consuming and difficult.
“The physical limitations of the hospital include so many different things,” Medigram Vice President of Technology Dean Shold explained. “There are lots of dimensions. Hospitals have to be built to support enormous amounts of weight. Everything within a hospital is load bearing. If you want to drill a hole through a wall, it requires approval. It can take years to retrofit a wireless network in a hospital.”
There are various forms of technology competing for the same space and this variance creates interference.
MRI machines can conflict with network signals and microwaves in break rooms can conflict with other networked tools. Organizations need to deploy access points to make sure that they’re not only broadcasting 2.4 GHz and 5GHz, but also rebroadcasting AM frequency for pagers and LTE for mobile devices.
There is no magic fix for connectivity issues in healthcare organizations. Entities have spent millions of dollars and still have areas of the network that they can’t control because of the complexities of healthcare wireless deployment, according to Douville.
“When you start looking for physical limitations in a hospital there's the actual limitations and there's the difficulty and time it takes to change them,” said Shold. “More is not always best. I've heard many times organizations trying to solve their problems by putting more access points everywhere. Access points in every room, access points everywhere.”
“Unfortunately, the way wireless technology works is that your phone's always searching for the strongest signal,” Shold continued. “If you throw in too many access points you actually have a greater chance of a problem with devices disassociating and re-associating with another access point. And if you're using voiceover IP, you end up getting dropped calls. More is not always better. Better is better.”
Shold suggested that once organizations realize that they need help with their network, they should look into strategic partnerships with their wireless vendor. Involving the engineering team from the vendor can make a huge difference in the network’s success. While working with the vendor this way can be expensive, it will save money in the long run.
“It's an investment,” said Shold. “You look at the numbers and you may think that it’s a lot of money to spend to have the vendor help design the network. But you get a partnership and level of commitment where the vendor will make it work.
“Upgrading a wireless environment is always difficult and it’s always risky, especially in an environment like a hospital where you can't support downtime,” Shold added. “The more you can work with a vendor earlier on, the better. It's really building that level of strategic relationship with whoever the vendor you're choosing.”
Healthcare wireless networks are complex and will always challenge organizations no matter how advanced they are. Investing in the network as a whole, instead of applying quick fixes that don’t fully address the problem may be expensive, but less downtime and better connectivity is invaluable to healthcare organizations.