Wireless Connectivity: A Critical Element in Healthcare

 Jun 16, 2021   |    Cristine Kimbrel

Over the last decade, the exponential growth in wireless connectivity has created some real challenges – and opportunities – for healthcare facilities. The possibilities are infinite. Wireless connectivity is not.

Every day, people walk into a typical hospital with a huge array of personal wireless devices. There are approximately 6.5 network-connected devices per person in a hospital. Some devices — smartphones, iPad® and other tablets, laptops, and wearables — are being brought into your hospital by guests and patients, as well as being used by clinicians and staff. These compete for network bandwidth with medical equipment already in your hospital, such as infusion pumps, scanners, and connected carts. Within three years, this average will increase to 13 devices and more than 50% of these devices will be wireless, potentially overwhelming networks.1 Add in wireless IoT devices and it's easy to see how hospital networks will soon be completely overwhelmed — unless there is a plan to accommodate this growth and embrace the wireless mobility future.

In this article, I’ll explore these challenges and present a strategy for in-building wireless connectivity focusing on three key principles:

  1. Network design based on application and device requirements
  2. The right network for the right device and the right application
  3. Ensure optimal performance across all networks

With 5G and OnGo, coupled with other wireless networks, such as DAS, it is important to create a strategy that supports everything wireless. Whether the project is a new, ground-up facility or an existing renovation, healthcare facilities with a strategy in place are better equipped to meet the complex networking challenges of today, while also laying the groundwork for tomorrow's "smart hospitals" driven by IoT and 5G/OnGo networks.

The Basics of Network Design: Devices and Applications

A good beginning makes for a good ending. We’ve all heard that. It’s trite, but true, especially when planning a network. Remember the basics, good network design is based on application and device requirements.

First things first. Start with an audit of all wireless devices currently in use in your system. This means everything: personal devices, medical equipment, IoT sensors, monitors, office equipment, networking equipment from the front door to the rooftop and back down to the basement.

The next step, after doing a thoroughly comprehensive audit, is to inventory every application used in the facility by clinicians, administration, patients, and guests. Think like a journalist: Who uses what, where, when, and why? You need to consider users, current business issues and requirements, solutions, and network locations. That means documenting every application, functionality, use case, upgradability, timeframe, as well as when and where the devices and applications will be used.

This is the information you’re after: the operational parameters of every device in terms of the RF coverage, RF signal strength, and throughput needed just to get the device to work. On top of that, you need to account for what and how many applications each device needs to run. This data will help you further define requirements for throughput, roaming, and hands-offs, LAN network settings, server settings, and security specifications.

There’s more. Think about the future and what applications (VR, robotics, telehealth, etc.) you want to support next year, the year after, even five years or more down the road. Then take whatever capacity you think you’ll need, and add 50% to it for the unknown. This isn’t about doing a generic wireless LAN or DAS. It’s about making sure that your wireless connectivity is truly going to support all intended (and unintended) use cases in the future. For example, who would have ever planned for emergency, temporary hospitals in parking lots, administrative offices, or empty sports stadiums? No one, until last year.

Yes, the audit means an incredible amount of homework. But the more you “study” now, the better the results later when your wireless network is put to the test and connectivity is life-critical. You want more than a passing grade. You need 99.999% performance and coverage. To prep for this huge project, you may want to enlist some IT tutors specializing in wireless connectivity. Look into mobility workshops and other online resources as well.

The Right Network, the Right Device, the Right Application

In terms of wireless, we’re living in an era of unprecedented opportunity. You’re in a better position now than ever before to create the optimal network to support everything wireless in your healthcare system. The key is to choose the right network for the right devices and the right application.

With 4G, two-way radio, and earlier Wi-Fi iterations, you had limited network choices to support everything wireless. Today, with 5G and OnGo, coupled with purpose-built wireless networks, both existing and new, you can implement a forward-looking wireless strategy that greatly expands the wireless capacity, reliability, and coverage in a hospital. The key to this is thinking differently.

Start with 5G and 4G smartphones supported by an indoor cellular network solution. This is predominantly for the patient, guest, and staff traffic from the major mobile network operators (MNOs), which will support the enhanced mobile broadband capabilities of 5G. This enables the smartphone to operate inside your hospital just as it would outside of your hospital. Likewise, public safety, 2-way radios, and even paging can be carried on a DAS. In some hospitals, there may be a requirement to use a public cellular carrier or a DAS because wireless is not only in buildings but in a wide area.

Wi-Fi has been the backbone of every hospital IT network. It’s used for dedicated VoIP devices, medical devices, clinical applications, and especially for GuestNet. It has been tasked with everything but is often taxed with constant QoS tradeoffs. The limitations of Wi-Fi are fairly well known, and it should be used when it is the only choice for a specific device and where it is a good match for the application(s). What may not yet be well known or accepted is that there is now a great alternative to Wi-Fi.

OnGo can, and I predict will, become a great solution to resolving all the Wi-Fi issues and pitfalls because it gives you a higher quality of service behavior. Today, newer smartphones, tablets, routers, gateways, and laptops are OnGo Certified. This enables traditional Wi-Fi applications, such as mission-critical and clinical applications, i.e. EHR, to be offloaded thus ensuring better performance for general-purpose Wi-Fi applications. Purpose-built medical-device manufacturers have promised OnGo support for infusion pumps, vital signs monitors, etc. As 5G and OnGo mature, high bandwidth medical devices can migrate from Wi-Fi to OnGo. For those who have struggled to get what they need from Wi-Fi, an OnGo network that brings private LTE into the picture, may be just what the doctor ordered.

Finally, consider special-purpose wireless networks, i.e. Real-Time Location System (RTLS), which provide unique capabilities, such as asset tracking, contact tracing, temperature monitoring, and hand hygiene compliance. These networks should be designed to complement 5G, OnGo, and Wi-Fi — filling in additional operational information.

Ensure Optimal Performance Across All Networks

The arrival of OnGo and 5G is making a real impact in the world of healthcare communications. OnGo and 5G give you a great vehicle for innovation and new solutions as they come on the scene and a way to move current traffic over to OnGo and 5G. For example, mission-critical applications can work on 5G, OnGo, and RTLS. Guest traffic can move to 5G. Operations can run on OnGo or stay on Wi-Fi..

Before you start moving existing wireless applications and business solutions to different networks, ask yourself — while thinking of the users — what’s working now? What’s not working? This is where you can identify problems, the causes, and the fixes. The solution may not require a hefty investment into network hardware/software; it may be as simple as matching applications to the right network to ensure optimal performance.

For example, a hospital may have a real-time patient-care application. But the staff doesn’t use it. Why? They don’t like it. It’s slow, cuts out, and is unreliable. So you do some digging and find that the application is plagued with latency and jitter problems. How can you solve the problem? Move the application to OnGo and the latency and jitter problems disappear. Staff begins to use the application; it becomes a more valuable tool; hospital administrators start to see a real return on their investment. It’s a win/win for everyone.

By Cristine Kimbrel, Wireless Senior Product Manager, Black Box Corporation
Cristine Kimbrel is a Senior Product Manager with Black Box Corporation.  She has an extensive background in all aspects of In-Building wireless network communications with a specific focus on 5G and OnGo.  Cristine holds MBA, International Business from Park University. Certifications include, Graduate Certificate Homeland Security, Graduate Certificate Project Management, Six Sigma, SAFe Agilist.

1. Ericsson Mobility Report November 2020; https://www.ericsson.com/4adc87/assets/local/mobility-report/documents/2020/november-2020-ericsson-mobility-report.pdf