TECH: The evolution of wireless in hospitals

Now that cell phones and Wi-fi have proven to be safe and essential for health care facilities, there’s a race on to get signals into those buildings. This is proving to have some interesting possibilities, but is also bringing some technical challenges to hospital technology managers. Frequently buildings are too dense to allow good cell phone signal, while increased demand for Wi-fi and VOIP is putting pressure on the ad-hoc Wi-fi networks being built up in many hospitals. One solution gaining traction is to locate PCS, cellular and paging, and Wi-fi services centrally and create a series of ceiling-based transmitters to amplify and distribute the various signals. One company in the forefront of this is InnerWireless, which has announced several installation wins in recent weeks. I recently spoke with Jim McCoy, chief technology officer of InnerWireless, and Tuomo Rutanen of Ekahau to find out a little more about what’s going on inside the wireless world for hospitals.

Wireless and Wi-fi are different. InnerWireless’ technology deploys Wi-fi, as well as PCS, cellular, 2 way radio, 2 way paging and other signals. Conventional practice for Wi-fi is to deploy those points throughout a floor or department. Innerwireless co locates those Wi-fi access points at one place per floor, combine their outputs and then injects them onto their distributed antenna, therefore giving every user the strength of multiple antenna to access. This enhances Wi-fi data and more importantly VOIP performance. There tend to be around 6 distributed antenna per typical 20,000 sq ft floor, each one up in a ceiling panel where it’s installed once and forgotten about. All other services (cellular, PCS, etc) are piped to the same access point from aggregated through a main console room. And of course once the central points are in for cellular, it’s probably more cost-effective to layer Wi-fi into that system than to do it with ad-hoc networks.

In addition InnerWireless, Ekahau, and others are developing the ability to track patients, products and equipment in a cost-effective real time manner using the Wi-fi network–an always-on alternative to RFID which works sort of like an “indoors GPS”. They are both deploying tracking tags on people and equipment, and the size and price of those tags is falling rapidly. Ekahau’s approach takes advantage of the existing Wi-fi network, whereas InnerWireless uses its installed antennas and adds several more battery-operated sensors (probably 20 more per floor) to extend the accuracy of its trackers. Innerwireless is running their tracking over a different system within their infrastructure and are using the 802.15.4 standard for the tags.

These are two innovative companies attacking a key problem for health care facilities. Given the problems hospitals have locating their staff, patients and other movable parts, expect this technology to spread rapidly.


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  1. Back in 1996, I was involved in the testing of 2mb wifi in a 130 year old teaching hospital. As an experiment and to show the potential, even allowing for the 2 foot thick walls, it was not so bad. If memory serves me – the battery life on laptops was more of an issue at the time, than were the connectivity speeds (green screens, etc).

  2. Wireless connectivity is absolutely essential in the clinical environment. Healthcare workers are by definition, mobile. Thankfully, we now not only have high speed broadband networking to support clinicians, but a range of devices to support their digital worksytles including light weight and powerful Tablet PCs, Pocket PCs and SmartPhones. Better yet, powerful software applications like Office Communicator can now facilitate the convergence of e-mail, messaging, audio and video teleconferencing, telephony, paging and more on to a single device and platform giving end-users far greater control over how, when, where and by what means they want to communicate. This sets the stage for much improved care team collaboration and therefore improved patient safety and satisfaction. It’s all about good communication; a cornerstone in the provision of care.

  3. There is no requirement in HIPAA for absolute security of PHI, nor can there ever be absolute security. What is required is to take reasonable measures. Consultants are getting very rich by pushing the boundary of “reasonable-ness” out to someplace the National Security Agency might be familiar with, but they get away with this because of 1) widespread computer illiteracy of managers in medicine, and 2) widespread business illiteracy of computer technicians in medicine. There is no need to ban the use of laptops or most any other sort of device in medical settings on privacy grounds — technical and architectural and procedural methods of reasonably protecting Protected Health Information are well-known. Yes, there is work to do in most organizations, but it need not bankrupt anybody or prevent straightforward deployment of networking technologies. The “huge hurdles” exist mostly in the sales brochures of peddlers.

  4. I’m all for wireless technology in the hospital and medical center setting. HIPAA concerns could be addressed by banning lap top use in the waiting areas and other hospital grounds areas, though this is not patient and family friendly. We currently ban cell phone use on our hospital grounds and this has not raised any great concerns, though there are those who still violate this policy and have to be told to turn their phones off. More specifically, patient information is password protected, so banning use of laptops by non-medical personnel should satisfy confidentiality concerns. Of course, one might worry about outside hackers, but there must be firewall and other safety features that can frustrate these attempts.

  5. It is interesting to note that the InnerWireless distributed antenna does not support RFID solutions (which require individual RF antennas for RFID receivers). Thus Wi-Fi based systems like Ekahau and PanGo, or RFID systems using different frequencies like Radianse, can’t use the InnerWireless wireless utility. InnerWireless has filled this gap with a great solution that breaks new ground in ease of deployment and cost.

  6. What about security concerns associated with wireless? Obviously HIPAA and other privacy concerns present huge hurdles

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