Wireless technology still emerging in healthcare

By John Andrews
02:07 PM
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Wireless technology has made great strides in the healthcare field and is a platform of many uses for administrators, clinicians and support personnel. Its role in communications has become standard and vendors are continually searching for ways to integrate new applications into the domain.

It seems that wireless networks are a work in progress and that the status quo remains in a state of flux. While there are plenty of success stories from hospitals, “growing pains” also persist.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based Spyglass Consulting Group has identified incompatible systems as a key obstacle. Its recent study, “Point of Care Communications for Nursing,” found that incompatible hospital wireless systems are making it difficult for nurses to effectively communicate with patients and collaborate with care team members.

“Hospitals are purchasing communications solutions from different vendors requiring different mobile handsets that operate over different wireless frequencies,” said Gregg Malkary, Spyglass’ managing director. “Nurses are forced to carry multiple communications devices to address specific job functions and responsibilities. Critical messages, non-critical messages and spam are frequently interspersed on the same or different devices making it difficult to filter, manage and prioritize communications from team members.”

Based on interviews with more than 100 acute care and home health nurses, the Spyglass study found:

  • 71 percent of hospital-based nurses indicated their wireless networks “were poorly designed, resulting in coverage gaps, interference and overloaded access points.”
  • Hospitals are investing in point of care communications, but deployments are limited. While 66 percent of hospital-based nurses said their organizations had deployed VoIP-based communications to provide greater mobility, cost concerns limited deployments to specific hospital departments and select nursing personnel.
  • VoIP communications can be disruptive at the point of care, as respondents said phone calls received while performing patient procedure can result in distractions, which can lead to errors.
  • Point-of-care deployments require nursing involvement during the design phase of the IT project. Respondents called for better collaboration with IT staff to understand workflow inefficiencies and how wireless communications and mobile computing technology can be used to support new and existing processes at the point of care.

Eyeing connectivity
Seattle-based NetMotion Wireless cites a recent Motorola survey to show how wireless applications are gaining importance with healthcare IT decision makers. The “State of Mobility in Healthcare 2009” study found that 80 percent of respondents said mobility initiatives were more important to their organizations than a year ago and that their major focus is accessing patient data directly at the point of care.

Among the top applications in the survey are electronic health records, computerized physician order entry and medication administration. Researchers say these initiatives drive overall improvements in patient care and new efficiencies and were associated with a 31 percent reduction in manual errors and an increase of 39 productive minutes per worker per day.

Pam Cory, NetMotion Wireless’ vice president of marketing, says the company’s network, Mobility XE, enables workers to maintain secure connections to applications as they move through coverage gaps and across various networks.

“By ensuring secure connectivity, device and application management, cross-network roaming and application persistence, clinicians can focus on their patients and not on their mobile devices” she said.

Advantage: Wireless
The Saint Barnabas Health Care System in Belleville, N.J., needed a system that gave clinicians more mobility and expediency in their routines and four years ago it implemented a wireless card program for the emergency department.

“The challenge was to get information as quickly as possible to the caregivers, for lab and radiology results,” said CIO Don Lutz. “The old hardwire way was slow – now caregivers can take a wireless card to the bedside and get a timely response and faster turnaround time for patients. It has worked very well.”

Now that the ED has had some time to acclimate to the wireless system, Lutz plans to implement it across the enterprise one department at a time. While he admits that the extension will require “major infrastructure upgrades” to the Cisco network, he says the results will be worth it.

The Houston-based Memorial Hermann Healthcare System is also due for an infrastructure upgrade after signing an 
agreement with Verizon Wireless in early December to install and maintain an advanced telecommunication system at the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. The proposed $2.1 million Distributed Antenna System is designed to allow physicians and patients to receive cell phone coverage through the 2 million-square-foot facility, even in the basement.

This is the third Memorial Hermann hospital to install the antenna system designed by The Molitoris Group, a Houston-based telecommunications developer, who brokered the business deal and is currently managing construction of the site. Memorial Hermann plans to work with interested wireless telecommunication providers to provide extensive telecommunication services.

“Distributed Antenna Systems are no longer a luxury for major hospital complexes,” said Molitoris founder Rob Todd. “As a result of the installation of this system, Memorial Hermann will continue to be at the forefront of technology in Southeast Texas.”

Advancing networks
Machine-to-machine integrators like Arlington, Va.-based KORE Telematics see the healthcare market as having enormous potential for various purposes now and in the future.

“For healthcare, there is a convergence of three driving forces that is serving as an important enabler – a focus on wellness management, smaller-sized devices and lower prices and power requirements,” said Alex Brisbourne, president and COO. “Reliable IP communications are available and cellular coverage is ubiquitous.”

The 3G-network technology of today provides plenty of coverage and speed for devices throughout the healthcare campus and surrounding community, Brisbourne said, but a stronger, even more powerful 4G network is already in development. Still, it will be years before that system becomes reality for a good portion of the United States, he said.