Healthcare Prefers Wi-Fi

By Adam Stone

August 11, 2004

The wireless technology of choice for the medical industry is likely to be 802.11, according to a new report -- though it will have to overcome obstacles like legacy integration, other wireless technologies, and (as always) security.

The medical arena is one of the more challenging settings in which to implement a WLAN. There's little room for error and there are a slew of regulatory constraints, along with the high likelihood of interference with other devices. Yet a new study shows that wireless is gaining steady ground in hospitals and other healthcare facilities around the country.

"In 2004, we estimate the total medical Wi-Fi market to be $495 million in the United States. That includes Wi-Fi equipment, Wi-Fi networking and systems integration, and also mentoring, control and optimization. Going out to 2010, we estimate it will be about $2 billion." This according to John C. Williams, a managing director of The FocalPoint Group and an author of its new report, Wireless in Healthcare.

The wireless industry has a lot riding on healthcare, where the dominant protocol among competing wireless options stands to enjoy significant revenues. The study projects that wireless networking and related service revenues in the healthcare arena will be a $7 billion business in the United States by 2010.

At present, with healthcare struggling to bolster its bottom line in the face of diminishing reimbursements, hospitals are looking to Wi-Fi as a means of both enhancing care and boosting efficiency.

At this point, "Wi-Fi is primarily related to staff mobility, giving people the ability to wander around the hospital and have access to patient information in the palm of their hand, which is something they did not have before," Williams said. "Wireless is giving them real-time data access. Say a doctor orders a test on a patient. Now that doctor can get the results from the lab as soon as they are ready."

Of course, such uses require specialized applications that can not only deliver the needed data, but can do so in a convenient format for wireless users. The development of such applications likely will influence the eventual role of Wi-Fi in medical settings, and Williams noted that such applications already are beginning to appear.

"There is a form factor issue -- you do have to reconfigure data so that it is readily available and readable in a handheld device -- and there are people who are working on this," he said. New electronic databases, for instance, "would allow doctors to not only write electronic prescriptions, but to do things like test for drug interactions, all while working right there at the bedside."

This kind of capability can increase productivity at all levels of care. In its survey of medical establishments, FocalPoint Group observed that some of the most successful Wi-Fi implementations were in use among frontline caregivers. "A nurse is now able to monitor a lot more patients than might have been possible otherwise," Williams said. "You can now monitor the patient, the equipment in the room, the dispensing of the medicines. All that information can be centralized, and the nurse can go from room to room and use a handheld to be constantly made aware of what is going on with the other patients. So they are able to cover a lot more ground."

There are roadblocks on the way to greater Wi-Fi acceptance, however, as hospitals struggle to balance the need for efficiency against their ongoing budget constraints.

To add a new wireless protocol, "you have to be able to integrate with the existing infrastructure," Williams said. "So, for example, a lot of hospitals have already invested in the wired Internet, and rather than reinvest, they would like to have a single infrastructure that works for everything."

At the same time, other wireless protocols still may give Wi-Fi a run for its money.

"Bluetooth also has been fairly popular in healthcare. For instance, a doctor can use handheld equipment with Bluetooth or RFID to query another device regarding information or status reports," Williams noted.

Still, such usage does not rule out further Wi-Fi deployments.

"There can be a strong interaction with Wi-Fi. You can have a handheld communicate at short range to a piece of equipment using Bluetooth, and then that equipment can communicate that information throughout the enterprise," using Wi-Fi to bring the data to the larger network, he suggested. "I think that is symptomatic of what we are going to see not just in the medical space but in a diversity of enterprises, with users relying on a mix of technologies to do some form of multiple transmissions."

Wi-Fi's longstanding security issues still may hinder adoption in the highly regulated healthcare arena, where governmental imperatives demand that patient data be locked up tight. That said, the report notes that the coming 802.11i standard, with its improved security mechanisms, could help medical administrators overcome their qualms.

For the short term, at least, the FocalPoint Group study suggests that Wi-Fi will remain the wireless protocol of choice for healthcare. The ready availability of Wi-Fi devices and Wi-Fi applications, along with the relatively low cost of deployment, will combine to make Wi-Fi the preferred option -- at least for the next two to three years.



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