The Medical Vertical: Wi-Fi's Untold Story

By Adam Stone

June 18, 2003

Southern Indiana's St. Joseph's Hospital seems to be a perfect showcase for just how well 802.11 networking can assist in health care.

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 Wi-Fi."

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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