In Healthcare The Future Is Wireless

The VAR Guy

April 1, 2006

9 Min Read
In Healthcare The Future Is Wireless

How VARs can help hospitals save lives and money through mobile solutions

It’s Friday afternoon at the award-winning El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Calif., and a gastroenterology nurse is having the same problem she’s had every day this week: Finding an intravenous pump for a patient. This is hardly news to CIO Mark Zielazinski, who spends as much as much as $80,000 a year renting additional IV pumps, knows he has plenty available, but needs a staff member devoted half-time just to locating them.

But Zielazinski is no longer worried: He’s got a wireless network in place and a solution in the works. With help from technology partners Eclipsys Corp. and PanGo Networks Inc., the Silicon Valley facility will be equipping its IV pumps with radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips so the hospital can track the devices’ locations. Saving $80,000 a year is a nice payback for Zielazinski, yet he says it’s minor compared to the many other advantages El Camino’s wireless local-area network, or WLAN, has afforded the hospital.

Set up more than three and a half years ago, the WLAN initially powered bedside patient registration with computers wheeled around on carts. Then the hospital installed a wireless, hands-free voice-communication system from Vocera Communications Inc. Eventually, the 395-bed hospital opened up a public Wi-Fi network for patients to use. All together, the WLAN has meant an improved workflow, increased staff satisfaction and-most importantly-better healthcare.


As hospitals across the country face government and consumer mandates to cut costs, improve technology and decrease medical errors, wireless networks are becoming both necessary and ubiquitous. “It’s a more competitive environment today,” Zielazinski says. “If you can’t demonstrate quality outcomes, you’re going to be in trouble. The business model of healthcare today demands wireless.”

That’s good news for systems integrators and value-added resellers that can bring together mobile applications, devices and infrastructure for healthcare clients. “In today’s context of escalating costs, managed care, regulations and technology-savvy patients, many healthcare organizations are turning to wireless solutions,” says S. Ravi Shankar, an industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a global marketing-research firm based in San Jose, Calif.

Hospital-based WLANs have been used for more than a decade, but only recently have they broken out of single departments to become hospital-wide initiatives. Today, WLANs enable wireless communications for data, voice calls and image transfers being accessed on everything from laptop computers to Wi-Fi phones, PDAs, voice badges, tablet PCs, RFID chips and digital cameras.

“Wireless is very hot right now,” says Fran Turisco, research director at the Emerging Practices division of First Consulting Group Inc., a Long Beach, Calif.-based consulting and systems integration firm. “The security people are comfortable, and there is a desire for caregivers to have computers at the point of care.”

For resellers and VARs, the opportunity is large and growing. According to Eric Brown, a vice president at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., about 4 percent of hospitals’ total $480 billion budget goes to IT, up from 2.5 percent five years ago. That’s an entire IT market opportunity of nearly $20 billion. “New sales, new growth, new customers and new products,” Brown says of WLANs. “You’d like a piece of that: It’s a growth market.”

Today, at least 50 percent of hospitals have “some form of wireless networking in play,” estimates Carol Selvey, the IT strategy partner at Dallas-based consulting and IT services firm Affiliated Computer Services Inc. As early as next year, that number will grow to more than 65 percent, according to Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. It’s no wonder that WLANs are popular, given the advantages mobility can offer:

  • Up-to-the-minute patient, medication and medical-test data available throughout the hospital on mobile devices that log instant feedback and eliminate tedious after-the-fact paperwork filled in by hand.

  • The ability to avoid duplicate tests and record-keeping.

  • Faster response time by doctors and nurses and quicker and more accurate diagnoses. This can result in improved patient care and may even save lives.

Wireless devices such as Vocera’s communications badges can vastly improve the speed and efficiency of hospital communications with instant, hands-free, voice access to all members of a medical team. Plus, the badges can transform hospitals from cacophonous cauldrons-the overhead system is always paging someone-to quieter environs where patients can get the rest they need. Quicker communications among departments can also mean faster payments.

Working on a PDA, tablet PC or laptop, “the doctor has immediate access to patient records and to the pharmacy,” notes Bill Cannon, chief operating officer at NeTeam Services, a wireless solutions provider based in Naples, Fla. Pharmacy information “immediately goes into billing, and the hospital gets its money more quickly.”

But while WLAN advantages are numerous and clear, the path to success for a hospital’s technology partners can be murkier, as a host of challenges await resellers and systems integrators. Topping the list is a red-hot customer focus on patient-data security, especially in these days of strict government regulations as a result of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). “The push back is always security,” notes NeTeam’s Cannon.

Hospitals are also frequently not-for-profit organizations with limited IT resources. Then there’s technology. Many say the perfect mobile device for healthcare has yet to be invented: PDAs can be too limited, PC tablets too large. And, the explosive popularity of Wi-Fi has lulled some CIOs into the false belief that wireless LANs are, technically speaking, a piece of cake. “They think any monkey with a screwdriver can install them,” says Joel Cook, a senior technology sales executive at Eclipsys.

More challenges lurk within the culture of hospitals. “We’ve found that very often the IT department is not talking with the end users,” says Sandra Taylor, corporate marketing vice president at Proxicom Inc., an Internet consulting firm that last year merged with healthcare-IT services firm Daou Systems Inc. When touring healthcare facilities, Proxicom’s teams often see dust-covered laptops on patient gurneys. At the same time, the IT staffers leading the tours seem unaware that hospital personnel gave up on the mobile devices long ago because “the laptops were too heavy and the carts didn’t fit into the rooms.” So even when a WLAN is designed to top technical specifications, the hospital’s internal processes and workflow are often overlooked. If a chart hanging outside an examination room indicates a patient is ready to be seen, what happens when there are no longer any patient folders? “It’s hard to take an existing staff and all of a sudden become paperless,” notes Forrester’s Brown. “This is a huge transformation.”

To help clients make such transformations, VARs and integrators need smart strategies. For starters, their top priority must be to deliver wireless networks that are rock solid both in performance and security. “The biggest thing is the security of the wireless infrastructure,” says El Camino Hospital’s Zielazinski. Reliability follows close behind, he adds. “Things have to be really bullet-proof and really mobile.” Such technical priorities must be balanced with business issues, though, so that mobile applications and devices fit into a hospital’s routine. Technology partners must also be able to accommodate a hospital’s long sales cycle, perhaps by working flexible technology specifications into a budget proposal. And resellers must build networks for long-term needs rather than only for current pain points.

It’s a lot to ask. But those who heed the call can expect a host of advantages. While taking a hospital wireless often means starting with straightforward bedside-accessible medical records or physician order-entry systems, each year can bring more applications and devices that mobility enhances: Inexpensive Wi-Fi phones; RFID-equipped wheelchairs; and patient access to the WLAN.

Working with hospitals to set up and maximize the potential of WLANs lets vendors participate in a broader set of applications technologies, says Chris Osterfeld, network services vice president at Eclipsys. “Customers like the ability to buy an end-to-end solution. In the next five years, wireless will become pervasive throughout all hospitals.”

The 7 Secrets of Wireless Success

1 –
Play It Safe

Hospitals won’t consider going wireless if you can’t guarantee data security, so make network security your top priority. Bill Cannon, chief operating officer at NeTeam Services, suggests using a hospital staff advisory panel to decide on everything from encryption to authentication procedures. “The hospitals that are successful have very strict rules about what devices” run on the WLAN, Cannon says.

2 –
Ensure Reliability

Just as there is no tolerance for data-security lapses, there is also no place for WLAN dead spots or service outages. “If the technology doesn’t work correctly, you spend a lot of time recovering, if you ever recover,” notes Chris Osterfeld, network services vice president at Eclipsys Corp.

3 –
Mind Your Business

Going wireless is at least as much of a business-process challenge as it is a technical one, so mind your workflow Ps and Qs. Letting hospital staff help select devices and applications can help. Technical partners “need to make sure they spend time seeing what the workflow is like,” says Robert Israel, the chief information officer at the two wireless John C. Lincoln hospitals in Phoenix, Ariz.

4 –
Keep it Simple

Hospital employees present a broad spectrum of technical expertise, so the applications and devices that run on hospital WLANs should be easy to use. Plan training time and, if possible, limit the number of partners you work with so that responsibilities will be clear if anything goes amiss.

5 –
Plan for Growth

A hospital CIO may initially think it makes no sense to extend wireless coverage to the maintenance department. But what if the hospital switches its entire phone system to Wi-Fi phones in six months? “During the design phase, we try to convince the customer to look beyond the existing need,” says Russ Michel, Proxicom’s infrastructure services manager. “Take an enterprise view, not a segmented or departmental view,” adds Sandra Taylor, Proxicom’s corporate marketing vice president.

6 –
Know Your Stuff

To succeed in the healthcare WLAN market, “you have to really be a healthcare-security expert,” says Eric Brown, a vice president at Forrester Research Inc. Technical credentials from industry groups such as Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) can’t hurt, Brown adds.

7 –
Don’t Unplug the Wired Network

No matter how much you or your clients love wireless, don’t disconnect the wired LAN. Wired LANs are still, on the whole, more reliable. And there are plenty of fixed devices-say, the accounting department’s PCs-that either don’t need wireless capabilities or have such intensive data needs that they could clog up the WLAN. “If you put all your eggs in the wireless basket, you are just asking for trouble,” says Israel.

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