The Medical Vertical: Wi-Fi’s Untold Story

With a handful of practicing physicians and just 67 beds, Deaconess St. Joseph’s
Hospital in Huntingburg, Ind. is not exactly a powerhouse institution. Yet in
the past year the hospital has implemented a Wi-Fi network for use by both its
doctors and administrators — a sign of just how far 802.11 has come in the
medical arena.

"Everybody I talk to says healthcare is one of the biggest opportunities,"
said Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "These vertical
applications that are flying under the radar are really the untold story of

At St. Joseph’s the story began back in 1930, when a local doctor turned a
former porch into a two-bed recovery room. As the hospital has grown over the
years, it has acquired various pieces of technology, including desktops and
laptops as well as network-essential servers, switches and hubs.  

Network administrator David Gilmour hit upon wireless as a way to boost productivity.
He wanted to provide bedside check-in of patients, while at the same time allowing
doctors to access that same information back in their offices and exam rooms.
The solution had to be robust and affordable, and at the same time it had to
meet the government’s increasingly
strict guidelines government the transmission of medical data
  In the recent past, security concerns have held back some medical institutions
from pursuing wireless solutions. But as Gilmour’s experience suggests, the technology
has just lately hit the point where even network administrators in this highly
sensitive field say they comfortable with the available safeguards.  

"We do implement the MAC address filtering and the 128-bit WEP with a
re-key every five minutes," said Gilmour. "Probably at this point
we will look at doing something with a RADIUS server to make authentication
even stronger."

The proliferation of Wi-Fi to a hospital in far southern Indiana comes on the
heels of successful wireless rollouts in a range of larger medical institutions
elsewhere in the past few months. Gilmour for instance used a suite of products
from Buffalo Technology to fulfill his Wi-Fi
needs in part because that vendor could already claim a successful implementation
at the far larger L.A. County Hospital.

Wireless networking company Symbol Technologies meanwhile
has been targeting the hospital market lately, having helped the non-profit
health care company Adventist Health deploy mobile applications within 20 of
its hospitals throughout California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. Likewise,
telecom carrier SBC this month rolled out its managed Wi-Fi services for schools
and hospitals. These 802.11-based services will enable those institutions to
converge voice and data traffic onto a single wireless network.  

All this seems to bear out predictions by research house Frost & Sullivan, which has said that the
hospital market for Wi-Fi wireless network hardware alone will reach $175.1
million by 2005 and will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 52 percent
during that time period.

At Buffalo Technology, Network Division Vice President Morikazu Sanu said that
even with the security issue largely settled, there still are other factors
that could hinder the continued adoption of Wi-Fi in the hospital community.

"Hospitals are big institutions, so naturally they take some time to move
from one technology to another. It’s a big decision," he said. Moreover,
hospital administrators tend to be even more cautious than are their counterparts
in other institutions, "specifically because human beings’ lives are being
dealt with in that environment."

In addition, Ask noted, the specifics of possible security solutions still
may give some hospital administrators pause. While it is possible to build an
(arguably) inviolable network today, she noted, it requires the use of at least
some proprietary solutions. In just a little while the price of security will
likely come down, once the 802.11i standard hits the market. "So they have
a choice of going to a proprietary solution today, which could be very expensive,
or they can wait for a standard that will solve the issue," she said.

Gilmour meanwhile said he is happy to have moved ahead with his system, a $10,000
setup that includes 16 access points.

"In the beginning we had some issues with channels overlapping from our
ISP, with one signal overlapping another, and it took some tweaking to make
sure there wasn’t any interference. And there was a learning curve for some
of the doctors, training them to log back on if they get dropped out of their
applications," he said. "But a lot of our doctors are fairly new physicians,
so they have been exposed to the new technology. They are aware of it, and many
of them had already been using it at home."

By and large, he said, the Wi-Fi rollout has been smooth sailing for himself
and especially for the physicians making use of the system. If that’s the case
in southern Indiana, it’s a fair bet that hospitals elsewhere will be going
Wi-Fi soon rather than later.

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