Low Power Wi-Fi: The New Nursing Tool

While most of us imagine cell phones saving lives after an accident or during a storm, thanks to the work of a determined mother-daughter team and specialized wireless phone provider, SpectraLink, wireless phones are now saving lives in hospitals, too.

The unlikely partnership between the California-based mother-daughter screenwriting team of Janet and Laura Greenwald and the Colorado-based wireless telephone provider came about as the result of the Greenwalds’ response to a tragic death in their family. In April of 2001, Janet’s 71-year old mother (Laura’s grandmother), Elaine Sullivan, slipped and fell in her Chicago apartment while getting into the bath. Concerned neighbors called paramedics a few hours later, and Ms. Sullivan was taken to a local Catholic hospital. She was conscious and stable, but unable to speak due to an injury to her chin, which damaged her dental plate. The Greenwalds were not contacted—despite the fact that Janet’s phone number was listed in her mother’s chart—until six and a half days later, just before Ms. Sullivan died.

“The hospital never even called the insurance company,” says Laura. “They assumed she was a Medicare case. She had a feeding tube, but she wasn’t fed for five days. She cut herself when she fell, and her lacerations were never treated. She developed a staph infection and she died without ever getting to see us or speak to us.”

In 2001, there were no laws on the books in Illinois—or in any other state—that would have compelled the medical professionals treating Ms. Sullivan to contact anyone on her behalf. But, thanks to the work of the Greenwalds, “Next of Kin” legislation has been enacted in Illinois, as well as in California, and a federal law is expected to be introduced during the next session of Congress by Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois. The laws require doctors and nurses to contact the next of kin for patients who are unconscious or unable to speak, within 24 hours of their admittance.

While the passage of the state-level legislation in December of 2001 was a victory, the question of how to implement the requirement still remained.

“If the patient’s family is allowed to communicate and participate in the care—if we had been able to communicate immediately and later, with doctors on the floor and with her, things might have been different,” says Laura. “This is where Wi-Fi comes in.”

Last year, the Greenwalds founded a non-profit organization called The Next of Kin Education Project (NKEP) whose mission is to pass “Next of Kin” legislation—six states now have it—and also to help medical providers give better care to patients like Elaine Sullivan, who couldn’t communicate with her doctors and nurses, and therefore needed a relative to do it for her.

SpectraLink, which was founded in 1990 and performed its first hospital installation in 1993, offers two varieties of wireless networks that are perfect for hospitals because of their low power digital spread spectrum technology. Based on the 802.11b standard—or on SpectraLink’s own proprietary technology, depending on the site—these phones emit a low amount of radio power making them safe for use in medical facilities, which are full of sensitive equipment. The same wireless network can be used for voice and data. The company now counts more than 1500 medical institutions nationwide among its clients and is a Gold Sponsor of the NKEP.

“We’re really happy to be working with The Next of Kin Education Project because we have the same objective,” says Ben Guderian, director of Market Strategy at SpectraLink. “Improving patient care is our priority.”

SpectraLink has essentially taken the cellular concept and deployed it on a smaller scale, in an in-building environment. “The typical cell phone,” explains Guderian, “operates at a power level of 6/10 of a watt or 600 mW. We use Wi-Fi technology that operates on only 10 mW, a factor of about 50 or 60 lower power. We can get away with that, in the systems that we provide, because they have fixed radio transceivers. They have Wi-Fi access points or proprietary base stations throughout the building. Just like a home cordless telephone, which only talks to its base phone, we sort of take that and translate the same type of technology to a place where you can have multiple base stations within the hospital. The call gets handed off, just like with your cell phone when you’re traveling throughout its network.”

The devices, which look like rugged cell phones, are generally coordinated with the care of specific patients. A phone number is assigned to each patient and then that patient’s phone is checked in and out of the nurses’ station at the beginning and end of each shift by their nurse. This system enables a nurse to receive lab results, page and speak with doctors, and, perhaps most importantly to the Greenwalds, to speak with relatives who need to make decisions about care or share information about medical histories, medications, and the like. Historically, nurses who wanted to page doctors or speak with family members would need to waste time waiting near land lines. SpectraLink’s system allows them to spend more time actually caring for their patients.

“There’s a shortage of skilled nursing people in North America today,” says Guderian. “This technology is a recruiting tool and a means of retention. Nurses see it as an investment in them. It gives them more time with the patient—and they can go home when their shift is over.”

While Guderian plays down the life-saving elements of his company’s devices, Laura Greenwald feels differently. “If Gramma’s hospital had been using SpectraLink’s products,” she says, “it would have saved her life.”

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