Study identifies top five wireless challenges

By Molly Merrill
10:11 AM

A new study identifies the top five challenges senior IT executives face when implementing wireless applications and devices in the healthcare setting.

HIMSS Analytics used two focus groups for the March study, ranging from large (1,000+-bed) urban health systems to small (100-bed) rural organizations.

According to the HIMSS Analytics Database, approximately one-third of U.S. hospitals use wireless technology.

"In theory, secure mobile access to medical records and imaging, prescriptions and even general administrative databases should allow doctors, nurses and medics to treat more patients faster, more accurately and with greater flexibility – from any location in a large hospital, during home visits or at the scene of an ambulance response," said Jennifer Horowitz, senior director of research for HIMSS Analytics. "However, often the anticipated productivity gains are hampered by a series of fairly common issues related to wireless networks. This report examines some of those key issues and identifies some approaches healthcare agencies are utilizing to address them."

Participants in the survey identified the following five key challenges:

1. Physical connectivity
. According to the study, a key challenge to the use of wireless networks is the physical construction of healthcare facilities and trouble accessing broadband network. Participants identified specific challenges, such as limitations on wireless signals, particularly in older facilities, on lower floors, in basement areas and from some new construction materials such as steel-encased buildings with glazed windows that deflect cellular signals.

Coverage gaps in wireless systems due to mountains or other unfavorable terrain was also cited as an issue. Study participants suggested organizations install “universal repeaters,” survival remote gateways (SRGs) and a distributed antenna system (DAS), or a mobile virtual private network (VPN) to enhance the wireless signal in their area.

2. Technology connectivity issues
. Another concern for participants is bandwidth availability on their wireless network that could limit clinician access to patient information.

Respondents addressed this issue in various ways, such as adding access points, segmenting networks to maintain appropriate access, limiting the bandwidth of their guest network and implementing management and policy software. Participants said connectivity issues also arise from the addition of applications to the network that operate in a proprietary environment. Some ways to address this issue include working with vendors to either move away from the use of proprietary solutions or to upgrade to an environment that accepts multiple versions of 802.11 standards.

3. Meeting user demand. According to the study, one concern is that wireless technology fulfills its promise to improve productivity without requiring end users to become “IT experts.” For example, respondents found that when clinicians come up against a problem, they seek alternative solutions that can sometimes further aggravate the network or will purchase technology that the IT department cannot support.

Participants say there should be clear policy statements on which devices IT departments can support.

4. Security considerations. Participants are also concerned with the security that surrounds the wireless environment itself. In order to ease these concerns, they have implemented security protocols, such as single sign-on.

Another concern is lost or stolen laptops. Some organizations are using centralized device software to quarantine lost or stolen devices and deny access to the network.

5. Network management issues. The study suggests that IT professionals get a good idea of whether they are successfully managing their wireless environments by the volume of help desk calls they receive. Some organizations are trying to identify problems before they come to the attention of their users by implementing a formalized rounding program to survey staff about the issues they might be having and run reports on devices.

NetMotion Wireless, a Seattle-based provider of mobile productivity and management software, sponsored the study.