Photo: Contando Estrelas
Internet is everywhere, it has become something we cannot live without, because it makes so many things easier for us. And hospitals have always been a candidate for high quality mobile connectivity. If we take into account how other large premises like stadiums and malls already integrated this technology, it really seemed only a question of time when it would reach centers for medical attention.
But hospital are different in many ways. They are places where people’s lives and health are taken care of. Places where hygiene and security are priorities. Where a data error or lack of communication can mean the difference between life and death. This is why conservative views continue to dominate in these places and technology is checked with utmost caution before it is incorporated.
Even though in many big hospitals in the developed countries it is quite common that there are closed networks for medical staff (and paid Wifi networks for the patients), it is still highly unusual to find a Wifi network at the vast majority of hospitals worldwide, in many cases neither for internal nor for external use. Many times the installation costs are the reason for that, but sometimes it is also attributed to medical reasons. Doctors and nurses filling out forms or medical reports by hand that have to be typed into a computer later on, still is the common denominator – even though it is a waste of time and therefore a productivity loss. And unless the tablets or smartphones visitors are bringing possess a data plan, these devices are reduced to the state of decorative accessories or toys.
The Importance of WiFi Networks in Hospitals
But, what if the doctor or the nurse -instead of writing on a piece of paper- would make notes on a tablet or smartphone which communicates via Wifi with a data center where the captured information is processed and sent back to the doctor or nurse so they can make an informed decision? A lot of time would be saved for everybody involved, but that is not all; the information would be stored safely (in the cloud or on servers), could be accessed from anywhere by the patient and could even be almost instantly included in national health statistics.
Many aspects show the usefulness of WiFi networks in hospitals; from relatives visiting a patient to maintenance technicians. If originally it was only PCs and more recently smartphones, printers and tablets that connected to WiFi networks, now any electronic device may need to exchange information. And you can find a great number of such devices in a hospital.
Photo: Lars Plougmann
Carousel Industries, a company spe-cializing in technology solutions, published an interview with Kamal Anand, a high executive of the company, in which he points out three categories of hospital applications that depend on WiFi. In these categories a great number of the electronic devices that coexist in a hospital is included:
- Life Critical Apps:These include things like tying infusion pumps, oxygen monitors and smart beds. They are indispensable for the care of the patients and reduce risks.
- Mission Critical Apps: In this category we can find secure access to electronic medical records (databases), access to imaging data like X-rays and different types of scans, for instance. These applications allow doctors and nurses to gain flexibility to move around wherever they are needed. They may also help to remotely monitor a pa-tient’s condition.
- Consumer Critical: Means offering the hospital clients (patients and relatives) the connectivity they need to perform different tasks like for example consult medical information, check their emails or even work from the hospital.
Anand even recommends that hospitals should establish various WiFi signals according to the kind of user; for the visitors, for critical tasks and for applications needing a certain bandwidth or connection speed. This recommendation makes sense, because it would be unforgivable if an electronic medical device in the hospital stopped working in a crucial moment (like during surgery) due to other, less important traffic on the WiFi network.
WiFi technology also has competitors (NFC, Bluetooth), and this is why the Wi-Fi alliance promotes its use and makes three recommendations to the people in charge of IT departments at hospitals:
- Adequately design and configure WiFi infrastructure, as it is necessary to provide sufficient coverage and capacity for all the electronic devices, especially for the most important ones.
- Incorporate special features into the network like WiFi-Multimedia (WMM), which improves transmission efficiency.
- Efficiently administrate WiFi networks and devices, which implies a determined and always up-to-date configuration which constantly adapts them to new uses and applications as they emerge.
The recommendations from Anand as well as from WiFi.org try to address real and potential security threats as well as possible conflicts that could occur with hospital equipment, which may consist of such a great variety of devices, which all need different bandwidths and might in case of insufficient coverage end up “fighting” over the connection, which could then cause interruptions in the service. We should add that a bad physical installation of the network, which may become vulnerable and have synchronization issues, can cause communication to be lost with all the corresponding collateral effects.
This is why it is important to have a complete strategy for wireless connectivity, which includes the corresponding usage policies for all users. After all it would seem absurd, if doctors and nurses could use their electronic devices inside the hospital, while visitors would not be allowed to do so for security or capacity reasons.
The Challenges for Hospitals
The world we live in is constantly becoming more connected and we are moving towards an Internet of things. This new technological wave affects all kinds of institutions created by mankind. Hospitals are no exception. In fact, the term “Connected Hospital” is discussed more and more.
A tremendous part of the hospitals worldwide has old infrastructure which was designed for the devices used at the time they were built. Many of them have no or very limited space for storage and installing a server room, for example, is practically impossible. And the walls may be so thick that establishing a WiFi signal is simply unaffordable.
Maybe for private hospitals it is less complicated to make adjustments to their infrastructure. After all they are businesses looking to make a profit, which also allows them to make investments. Public hospitals on the other hand have the disadvantage of depending on government institutions to decide about improvements and given the fact that they even lack medicine supplies at times, establishing a WiFi network is a low priority issue.
Still, given the undeniable benefits of WiFi networks at hospitals, it should certainly be mandatory to include a budget for the incorporation of this technology in any newly constructed hospital. Doctors, nurses and patients above all would be grateful to receive improved medical care.