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Improving the Patient Experience through Guest Wi-Fi

Colleen Colmenares, for HealthLeaders News, November 6, 2007
Wireless networks hold the promise to transform the healthcare industry--from shared service applications such as EMR, CPOE, PACS, and EMAR to applications that provide for greater patient focused care, such as VoIP networks, RFID, bedside charting, and mobile patient monitoring. In addition to these healthcare-specific applications, people today have become accustomed to using wireless networks to check e-mail, browse the Web, listen to music, and talk with family and friends wherever they are--in airports, hotels, coffee shops, and restaurants; and, increasingly, in hospitals. Innovative hospitals are now beginning to offer guest Wi-Fi services in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and improve their brand image.

Properly managing all these services requires a clear dividing line between public applications, such as guest Wi-Fi, and private applications, such as EMR. Most hospital IT staffs have expertise in managing the private applications, but less experience in RF engineering, network equipment configuration management, and monitoring and maintenance of wireless networks--their expertise is in managing and maintaining the applications required for a hospital to provide patient care (i.e. EMR and billing systems). Many, if not most, hospital IT staffs are new to the pitfalls and challenges of providing a public guest access service. Some of these challenges include maintaining regulatory compliance. This compliance goes beyond the obvious need to ensure patient privacy and meet HIPAA requirements; a hospital providing guest Wi-Fi must be in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), or they could face significant potential liability. Both of these laws require process, procedures, and technical measures to ensure that the provider of the Internet access (ISP) is able to comply--and the cost of doing so can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Other challenges to providing an access network are purely technical. They are, however, the most visible and important to the guest utilizing the network, such as ensuring that any computer that attempts to connect to the network is successful regardless of the network, proxy, or email configurations. Other users of the network must be protected from any viruses or worms that may be on a guest's laptop as well. The hospital that is able to accomplish all of these tasks is well on its way to providing a high-quality, reliable, and secure guest Wi-Fi solution. All of these requirements are predicated on the successful deployment of a robust, well-designed Wi-Fi network.

As has been discussed many times in the Wi-Fi industry, successful deployment of a Wi-Fi network is part art and part science. Utilizing a vendor that knows how to merge the art and science through thoughtful design, planning and RF surveying is critical. Guest Wi-Fi should be included in the network requirements so that the vendor can properly architect the network for capacity and security. The key elements of a properly designed and deployed wireless network include Quality of Service (QoS) management, bandwidth shaping and management, and packet/application prioritization. Proper RF coverage to prevent application performance degradation is another high priority.

The focus of Hospital IT staffs is administration and support of clinical applications, not guest Wi-Fi users. However, users of the guest Wi-Fi will need immediate support and answers to their questions. If the hospital does not have a readily available resource, they will turn to those closest to them--the clinical staff. A better solution is to have a well-published support number for users of the guest Wi-Fi service to call 24/7 when they have a problem. Having the support number available at all times provides the patients, guests, visitors, staff and physicians the ability to request general information and obtain assistance with connecting to the network, their VPN, and email. Staffing internally for this support can get expensive.

Hospitals are choosing to deploy guest Wi-Fi to support customer demand, improve the patient experience, and differentiate themselves from their competition. Internet service can also further improve the brand image of the hospital, improve physician retention, and improves the experience of the patient and visitors. None of these goals will be accomplished if the service is not provided with the correct network infrastructure and support.

IT professionals should be cautious about deploying a guest Wi-Fi service without the necessary user support. Unreliable and unsupported Wi-Fi can change what had previously been a neutral experience into a negative experience if the users are unable to connect or are unhappy with the support. Studies of customer satisfaction in the hospitality industry, where guest Wi-Fi has been available for many years, clearly show that if the network is not reliable, secure, and well supported, the end result is customer dissatisfaction with their entire experience, not just the Internet access. There have even been cases where hotels have experienced significant drops in occupancy that is directly related to poorly provided guest Internet access (wired and Wi-Fi).

If you are interested in guest Wi-Fi, you can either enable the public network yourself or hire an experienced vendor to monitor, maintain, manage, and support the service for you. To provide the service correctly, it will require a time investment by your network engineers or others with a high degree of expertise to design the network and ensure it has the capability to enable access for devices with unknown configurations. The time spent researching, designing, and implementing this solution means that your network engineers are not working on patient focused projects. Once the service is implemented, you will need to have 24/7 customer support (at least 4 full-time employees to answer the phones), someone to monitor the network and repair it when it has problems (on call at all times), someone to handle DMCA and CALEA requests when they occur, and someone to manage the Wi-Fi network's RF coverage as the RF environment changes over time. Most hospital IT departments are unable to meet the budgetary requirements for this many employees; and even if they can, these resources would likely be better spent on patient care focused projects. A much better solution is to pay an experienced vendor a fraction of this expense to provide the highest level of service and support.

A wise hospital chooses to provide guest access, and to provide it right by selecting a vendor with the expertise, experience, and capability to offer a first rate experience by ensuring that the guest is well supported, that the network is secure and reliable, and that all services are consistently maintained over time.

Now retired, Colleen Colmenares is a member of the Wayport Healthcare Advisory Council. She is the former CIO, HCA Central & West Texas Division. She can be reached at Colleen.colmenares@gmail.com.