The Risks and Benefits of Going Wireless

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media, February 10, 2009

Comparing a traditional wired network to a wireless one is a little like comparing a pet rock to a puppy. One sits inert, waiting for you to do something with it, while the other trots right along with you, demanding constant attention. Ask just about any CIO who has built a wireless infrastructure from the ground up, and he'll tell you that it's an expensive, time-consuming, and demanding undertaking.

In a financial climate where even the biggest hospitals are pinching pennies, making a major capital investment to expand your wireless network by installing a distributed antenna system (DAS), for example, may not seem like a prudent idea. And, with about 74% of CIOs reporting they already have some version of a wireless network in place, according to the HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey 2009, it's likely wireless has not been included in many hospitals' 2009 IT budgets. But like the rest of IT, the wireless market is evolving fast, and if you wait too long to upgrade, you could find yourself falling behind the curve.

Chief information officer Rich Pollack says positioning Virginia Commonwealth University Health System's Critical Care Hospital to meet future wireless demands was what he had in mind when he proposed installing a DAS in the new facility. The 500,000-square-foot, 250-bed hospital was designed and built from the ground up with wireless capability built into the infrastructure.

"We have 95% to 100% coverage wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling for every floor in hospital. That covers the gamut from telemetry, cell phones and PDAs to clinical carts, laptops, tablet PCs, pagers and two-way radios all on the one system," says Pollack, who says the system spent about $1.5 million on the hospital's wireless infrastructure. Pollack says that even with the challenges posed by installing the system, the investment is worth it.

"On the IT technical side, what we have now is much more demanding. With a wired PC, if it's installed correctly, you can forget about it for the next three or four years. It just kind of works. Wireless requires constant attention and tuning and adjustment and monitoring. It also requires a higher level skill set than you will typically see the average IT department," says Pollack, who recently hired two wireless engineers to help maintain the system.

So what is the payoff of investing a million or more just for wireless?

1. Cost savings (eventually). Let's say you are one of those cutting-edge CIOs who have already begun using an EMR. If you want to get the full benefit of that EMR, you have to have ubiquitous access to it just like you would with a paper chart. To do that in a wired environment you would have to install a PC in every nook and cranny in the hospital, says Pollack. "You're talking about the cost of hundreds and hundreds of PCs and ridiculous amounts of wired infrastructure," he says. Not only that, but the cost of moving just one wired desktop from area "A" to area "B" can alone cost thousands of dollars, he says.

2. Increased patient safety and quality of care. Those words are bandied around a lot, but in few cases are they truer than with a highly reliable wireless system. When the University of Chicago Medical Center decided to install a DAS, Michael Sorensen, executive director and chief technology officer, says the speed of access to information was a major selling point for him. "In the past an alert would go off and the turn-around time for it to be acted on could stretch out for an hour while the data was retrieved and the physician found. Now, it's seconds or minutes," he says. Sorensen, like Pollack, hired engineers to handle the new system, but says the benefits far outweigh the costs, with increased clinical efficiency, increased accuracy of data, reduced medical and transcription errors, faster workflow, and quicker results.

3. It is the trend. Happy clinicians make a happy hospital. And while the initial training process may be painful, both Pollack and Sorensen say the staff at their respective hospitals now wouldn't have it any other way. "This has become an expected underlying technology over the past three years among caregivers and clinicians," says Pollack, who notes that the system is considering retrofitting its older facilities with a DAS.

According to the HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey, nearly 86% of CIOs say they are planning to increase IT spending over the next five years. Sounds to me like including a wireless upgrade in your plans might be a smart move. After all, do you really want to be the last hospital running solely on DSL?

Kathryn Mackenzie is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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