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From Dead Zones to Infusion Pumps

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders Magazine, January 8, 2010
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Here are four strategies every CIO should know when building out a wireless infrastructure to meet future demands.

Healthcare delivery is becoming increasingly mobile. That means that hospitals and health systems will need a wireless infrastructure that does more than provide access to a wireless network in lobbies, waiting rooms, and patient rooms. Healthcare facilities will need to support a host of wireless applications like bar-code medication administration, infusion pumps, and RFID locator systems. They will also need to provide physicians wireless access to clinical information throughout the facility—not just on specific floors.

One important thing for chief information officers to do first is establish the vision, says Barbara Majchrowski, senior project engineer in the health devices group at the Plymouth Meeting, PA-based ECRI Institute, a nonprofit research organization. "Previously, a lot of medical technologies were on stand-alone networks—medical telemetry might be on a separate network from the enterprise network," she says. But the new trend is combining and interconnecting medical and information technologies. So what do you want to do with wireless infrastructure?

Implementing a unified wireless network is like building a house, says Kendall White, senior IT director for Carilion Clinic, an eight-hospital system based in Roanoke, VA, with a 600-member multispecialty physician group practice. "Every change order costs money," he says. Organizations need that vision up front, so as the project progresses they can keep the number of changes as close to zero as possible. "Map it out and talk to constituents and make sure they are on same page and they have an understanding of what is going in, what it is capable of, and not capable of," says White.

For Florida Hospital, the vision is to provide physicians, patients, and visitors access to information regardless of their location, says Todd Frantz, chief technology officer. The eight-hospital, Orlando-based health system has Wi-Fi data networks throughout its facilities, but still certain parts of its buildings had no cell phone coverage, says Frantz. So it implemented a wireless solution from Vienna, VA-based MobileAccess because it is modular and allows the hospital to add services or expand coverage as needed. "We continue to expand the coverage area in an ongoing process," he says. "If you have a dead spot, it is a challenge of budget rather than anything else," says Frantz, explaining that a broadband antenna on the roof collects cell phone signals from each of the phone companies, and then, using a fiber-optic cable network, distributes the signals to boxes throughout the facility.

White also took note of the uptick in mobile devices about five years ago. At the time, roughly 80% of the technology devices being used at Carilion Clinic were hardwired, he says. "We only had 20% that were laptops and cellular-type mobile devices."

Carilion determined it wanted a single wireless solution that could run different wireless standards like the 802.11 family of standards, cellular, and other broadband spectrums. It also wanted a passive wireless network, which generates a certain strength of signal that permeates throughout the facility and is constant regardless of day, time, or the number of devices that are trying to connect to it.

Active wireless systems have their advantages, says White, explaining that if, for example, an organization sees 40 of its users are in one area, active systems can add more signal strength to that area. "But the challenge is that you have to continuously monitor that, and there are more devices in play that can break, so it is more of a support headache," he says.

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