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Wireless health care technology: Opportunities…and challenges

WLAN in healthcare requires partners to tackle complex cellular and Wi-Fi networking architectures, as well as very long sales cycles with complicated user education efforts.

Wireless health care technologies present ripe opportunities for networking channel partners, yet implementing wireless LAN (WLAN) in health care settings poses a host of unique business challenges.

Partners that implement wireless LANs in healthcare facilities need a combined understanding of Wi-Fi and 3G/4G technology, as well as specific health care applications. What's more, they must also be prepared for a much longer and more complicated sales cycle that can involve in-depth user education and the ability to prove to users that they will experience zero downtime during a migration to new technology.

Medical applications push the boundaries of wireless health care technology

Any enterprise implementing wireless LAN must build an infrastructure that is stable enough to handle a large influx of mobile devices and multimedia applications. But in a health care setting, applications can push the network even further, requiring indoor-outdoor coverage.

William F. Carr Jr., WLAN technologies practice manager at Comm Solutions Company, an Aruba Platinum partner, describes implementing infrastructure for a patient discharge application that ran on an iPad and followed patients to their cars.

“Now we’re talking about wireless outside the facility, which requires meeting outdoor electrical code as well as dealing with the aesthetics of the access points located outside the facility,” he said.

Handling indoor-outdoor wireless LAN also demands the integration of Wi-Fi with 3G and 4G networks. For Internetwork Engineering (IE), a systems integrator headquartered in Charlotte, N.C, its Wi-Fi practice includes 4G and cellular rebroadcast to hospitals to supplement the Wi-Fi networks. The company does site survey and design for high capacity, high-density deployments in complex multifloor RF environments.

“We see the future of mobility as a converged market where the device decides on the best coverage,”  says Dennis Holmes, IE's mobility practice manager. At this point, however, the future of that technology is not concrete and most vendors admit they are still looking for a solid answer for seamless Wi-Fi-cellular roaming.

 

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Wireless health care technology sales cycle depends on user education

Going beyond technology, channel partners must be prepared for a much longer sales cycle when it comes to selling wireless LAN into hospitals and other health care settings. Since hospital networks are literally a life-or-death situation, health care setting IT shops require a lot more education and ensurance that things will not go wrong during a network migration.

 “Wireless also often involves a lot educating the customer about the technology that can take five to six months prior to a sale,” said Anthony M. Ferrante, director of business development in the health care division at 16-year-old Computer Design and Integration (CDI), a data center infrastructure solutions provider headquartered in West Teterboro, N.J.

Channel partners that heavily focus on health care settings often employ doctors and nurses on their own staff to help determine customer need and then do user education programs. In fact, both IE and CDI have individuals with health care expertise on staff who have served on committees of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a leading not-for-profit organization that provides professional development around IT and health care management systems.

“We work with two doctors on business development plans who understand IT and health care. Our health care customers like having doctors talk to doctors,” said Ferrante.

Going beyond education in elongating sales cycles, health care customers, unlike those in other verticals, tend to do a lot more research on the stability of the technologies because they don't have the funds to constantly refresh technology.

“IT has a longer lifecycle in health care. It’s not something they’re looking to swap out in 12 to 18 months,” Carr explained.

No room for downtime when implementing WLAN in health care settings

Implementing wireless LAN in health care settings can also take longer because there is no room for downtime when medical information is being transferred. Comm Solutions learned that firsthand when the integrator took on a job to seamlessly migrate three different vendor solutions into a new hospital wireless LAN.

“The hospital must continue operating as you migrate over to the new solution, so we couldn’t swap out all the wireless access points at one time,” he said. Additionally, all user device,s such as Wi-Fi phones, iPads or laptop carts, had to be able to roam between the new and existing wireless LAN infrastructures without the user having to reauthorize or experience dropped calls. That required our engineers to do RF tuning on the wireless boundaries between the solutions. “And there’s really no clear cut boundaries in wireless,” said Carr.

In addition to providing medical grade network architectures that are mission-critical with redundancy, channel partners must understand that a strong security practice also needs to be in place to deal with health care regulatory requirements.

 

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Facilities considerations in wireless health care technology

Finally, unlike wireless LAN implementation in other verticals, hospitals and other health care settings require increased consideration for disruption or potential contamination due to a technology installation. For example, patient treatment areas and operating rooms must be decontaminated if a ceiling tile is raised during installation.

To address this issue, Comm Solutions first rolls out technology in areas of campuses that have lower risk in order to avoid hazard or disruption. Once that goes well, engineers implement the technology more widely.

“The WLAN installation required significant preplanning with the wireless network first rolled out to non-treatment areas, such as the lobby and guest areas, where it was methodically tested and lastly installed in areas such as the ER and critical care areas, often after hours,” Carr added.

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