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Planning for Coverage, Capacity in Healthcare Network Upgrades

Healthcare network upgrades are a necessary but challenging part of HIT infrastructure. Assessing coverage and connectivity is a critical step to building a secure and supportive network.

healthcare network upgrades

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Planning for network coverage and connectivity in healthcare network upgrades takes more than simply adding access points to existing infrastructure. Understanding how wireless signals interfere with physical barriers and what kinds of devices are connecting to the network is key to a successful network.

“In a healthcare setting, the network has to be extremely reliable because it’s literally life or death,” Aruba Networks Product Marketing Manager Rick Reid told HITInfrastructure.com. “You have to plan coverage capacity, backup systems, and application intelligence just to make sure that things work — and that they work 24/7.”

Network planning is a vital step organizations need to take to gain visibility into their network. This plan includes accounting for coverage and capacity.

Planning for coverage is one of the first steps in the healthcare network planning process. All mobile devices, including Internet of Things (IoT), need to be able to easily and securely connect to the network from anywhere.

“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.”

READ MORE: Considering 802.11ax for Healthcare Wireless Networking

The active nature of healthcare professionals adds to the urgency of coverage everywhere. Clinicians need connectivity to access communication tools even when they are outside of the building taking a break.

“We find clinicians tend to run up and down the stairs rather than wait for elevators, and if they're carrying WiFi-enabled phones that they're using for messaging and alerting, then that area needs connectivity. We have to look at the workflow habits even around the hospital,” Extreme Networks Director of Healthcare Solutions Bob Zemke told HITInfrastructure.com.

This movement can cause organizations a lot of grief when stetting up access points. Providing strong signals everywhere isn’t an easy task, especially in a healthcare facility where there are many different frequencies and materials interfering with each other.

“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.

READ MORE: What Potential is in Healthcare Intent-Based Networking, Automation?

“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.”

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 5 GHz, 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,” Medigram Vice President of Technology Dean Shold explained to HITIfrastructure.com. “More is not always best. I've heard many times organizations trying to solve their problems by putting more access points everywhere.”

READ MORE: Healthcare Network Management Brings Visibility, Control to Orgs

“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.”

To solve network connectivity issues, organizations need to gain visibility and control over their healthcare network. Doing this one step at a time instead of ripping and replacing the entire network will help organizations focus on the parts of their network that are the weakest first.

Shold suggested that once organizations realize that they need to revamp their network, they should investigate 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.”

The complexity of healthcare networks is a consistent and evolving challenge for healthcare organizations. Understanding the physical and digital limitations of an organization’s network can help organizations plan for a network that will support more devices as they come on board.

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