RealTime IT News

WLANs Spreading to Hospitals

Wireless networking company Symbol Technologies is moving to widen its market share in the healthcare industry, helping a growing number of hospitals deploy switched-wireless and Wireless Local Area Networks in their patient care systems.

The Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol, which specializes in integrating wireless networks with handheld computers that capture bar code data and voice applications, recently helped Erlanger Healthcare Systems deploy a switched-wireless networking system throughout its Erlanger Medical Center, a 22-building healthcare campus in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With the networking system, nurses can use handheld devices to input patient data within the hospital's network, removing the process of taking handwritten notes and then inputting the data by hand.

Symbol said its switch-based wireless network can be scaled for higher bandwidth applications that deploy the 802.11a wireless networking protocol. Erlanger said it plans to co-locate 5.2Ghz wireless networks across 25 percent of its hospital campus in order to be used with digital imaging applications in the cardiology, radiology and neurology departments.

That's in addition to the 802.11b Wi-Fi network it is rolling out across its hospital campus, which will be used to offer wireless Internet service to 125 physician offices located on its hospital campus.

Erlanger also plans to roll out about 40 new wireless switches and 1,000 access ports across its campus over the next two and a half years as it readies a new crop of mobile applications. The switches and ports will be deployed for mobile medical workstations, the hospital said, and would eventually feature a headset-based soft phone for voice communications and an attached bar code scanner for verifying prescriptions while dispensing medications at the bedside.

Next up on its wireless networking plans is Voice-over-IP telephony. The hospital plans to equip about 600 staff members with phones that work over WLANs. Wireless network providers working on the service are also BellSouth Corporation and Nortel Networks Corporation.

Brad Brown, chief information officer, Erlanger Healthcare Systems, said although the WLAN features are practical and cost-effective to add, the project's main concern was its ability to secure patient data in compliance with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations about protecting patient data.

In another WLAN deployment, Symbol helped non-profit health care company Adventist Health deploy mobile applications within 20 of its hospitals throughout California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.

The networking project also involved a new information system (CIS) architecture provided by Cerner Corporation, which specializes in medical-based information technology systems.

Adventist Health said it is building the wireless data network in order to connect health care practitioners to pertinent medical information through mobile point-of-care carts. Also on its drawing board are a nurse call system that uses wireless VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) handsets and medical administration record applications using bar code scanning-integrated mobile computing devices. Adventist Health said it plans to roll out the switched-wireless network system this year.

"The demand for Wi-Fi wireless networks is rapidly growing for medium-to-large hospitals where bed capacity is over 200," said Amith Viswanathan, senior industry analyst, Frost & Sullivan. "As hospitals deploy mobility applications to improve operational efficiency, wireless networks will be installed initially for high patient throughput areas, including emergency rooms, critical care wards and nursing care floors."

The research firm expects the hospital market for Wi-Fi wireless network hardware alone (excluding mobile devices, software and services) to reach $175.1 million by 2005 and to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 52 percent during that time period.

The hospital projects and deployments of Wi-Fi networks are part of announcements from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference which began this week in San Diego.