The Doctor is In: Wi-Fi's Increasingly Valuable Role in the Business of Healthcare

By Jeff Goldman

December 05, 2007

With a shared focus on mobility and efficiency, Wi-Fi and healthcare are made for each other--and the addition of real time location systems makes them an even more perfect match.

In a hospital, time is always of the essence, and everyone (and everything) is on the move – which, of course, makes hospitals perfect locations in which to deploy Wi-Fi. According to ABI Research analyst Stan Schatt, 6,161 hospitals out of the 7,526 in the U.S. now have Wi-Fi networks deployed.

The most popular applications, Schatt says, include voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) and wireless access to patient records. More recent additions include wireless hotspots for patients and visitors, wireless transmission of prescriptions directly from the examining room to the pharmacy – and real time location systems (RTLS) to track everything from doctors to equipment.

In a recent report for ABI entitled Wi-Fi Real-Time Location Systems, Schatt predicted that by 2012, Wi-Fi RTLS will become an $800 million market – and revenue generated from healthcare purchases of Wi-Fi RTLS equipment will exceed $264 million. Research firm Frost & Sullivan is even more optimistic, stating that the global RTLS market will grow to $1.26 billion by 2011.

A hot market

While VoWi-Fi and access to medical records are well-established wireless applications in many hospitals, Schatt says RTLS is the next big thing. And he notes that deploying RTLS for equipment tracking is easy to cost-justify: at least 15 percent of healthcare equipment is regularly declared missing and re-ordered, when it’s really just in another part of the hospital.

Schatt says upgrading to 802.11n will also be key in the coming years, both to avoid interference with 2.4 GHz equipment and to make it easier to transmit large files.

“A lot of doctors’ offices have been set up on the peripherals of major hospitals, so x-rays are being transmitted across the parking lot to the doctors’ offices--and these files are pretty large,” he says.

And to ensure secure transmissions per HIPAA regulations, Schatt notes, intrusion prevention systems are key--which is good news for the companies that provide those systems.

“HIPAA is the best friend for intrusion detection systems from AirMagnet, AirDefense, and AirTight Networks, [which] have developed extensive reporting mechanisms that provide exactly the kinds of audit reports that HIPAA requires,” he says.

Consolidating networks

Peter Mongroo, global healthcare marketing lead for Aruba Networks, says the ability to consolidate a hospital’s various networks also makes Wi-Fi particularly attractive.

“Wireless cardiac monitoring solutions have been on proprietary networks in the past--and some of them still are--but we’re seeing some vendors deploying them on 802.11,” he says. “And that’s what I think most customers are looking for: one common infrastructure for all their applications.”

One interesting result of the increased use of Wi-Fi, Mongroo notes, is that many hospitals are starting to integrate their information technology and biomedical engineering departments.

“As we see these applications being deployed--clinical applications that were once the bailiwick of the biomedical engineers but are now being enabled by the IT infrastructure--you’re starting to see the necessary convergence of those two historical islands of information,” he says.

Enhancing VoWi-Fi

With VoWi-Fi well integrated into hospital environments, equipment providers are continuing to seek new ways to differentiate their offerings. Towards that end, Vocera Communications recently announced its new B2000 Communications Badge, with 802.11g, advanced encryption, anti-microbial technology, an OLED display, increased durability--and a Linux operating system.

Still, Vocera executive vice president Brent Lang says his company’s value proposition remains the same: it’s all about improving efficiency in communication.

“A user anywhere in the hospital can instantly get a hold of the person they need, just by saying their name or, more importantly, by saying their functional role--‘Call the on-call oncologist,’ ‘Call a transport tech,’ or ‘Broadcast to the emergency team,’” he says.

And it’s not just about voice: the latest version of Vocera’s software, Lang notes, includes APIs for interfacing with key equipment like blood pressure monitors.

“If your blood pressure gets above a certain level, it can automatically generate a text message that’s delivered to the caregiver who’s responsible for you as a patient, and that message is displayed on the Vocera badge,” he says.

Tracking people and equipment

It’s when you combine VoWi-Fi with RTLS that things really get interesting. RTLS equipment provider Ekahau recently announced a partnership with Polycom to enable location tracking on Polycom’s SpectraLink 8000 Series Wi-Fi handsets--allowing a nurse not only to reach a doctor immediately by phone, but to know exactly where that doctor is in the hospital as well.

Tuomo Rutanen, Ekahau’s vice president of business development, says cost is a key selling point for RTLS.

“Now that you have Wi-Fi that can be used for multiple things, voice, data, video and so forth, RTLS is just a natural application that rides over that 802.11, and the cost to put in a location tracking system is a fraction of what it was ten years ago,” he says.

And Rutanen says hospitals are getting the picture--Ekahau, he says, is currently rolling out two to three hospitals a week. That’s a huge increase from a year ago. Rutanen says the major shift happened this past summer, largely thanks to the endorsement of RTLS by larger providers in the healthcare space like McKesson and Siemens Medical.

Location is key

Josh Slobin, director of marketing for RTLS provider AeroScout, points out that there’s a huge range of potential applications for RTLS, from allowing a biomedical engineer to view not only where a piece of equipment is, but where it’s been--to integrating a temperature sensor into a tag to ensure that a supply of blood or medication has consistently been kept at the correct temperature.

Slobin says RTLS is also enormously helpful in ensuring that a hospital meets JCAHO standards for equipment maintenance. Instead of requiring a technician to walk around and check every tag on every single piece of equipment, the system itself can monitor equipment location and maintenance dates, alerting a technician whenever maintenance is required.

The coming years, Slobin says, will be key to the growth of Wi-Fi-based RTLS.

“A major new development that we’re going to see for hospitals in 2008 and going forward is the introduction of sensor data--ubiquitous data about assets--that gets transmitted over Wi-Fi,” he says. “And location is what ties it all together.”

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his work for Wi-FiPlanet, he writes for Jupitermedia's ISP-Planet, UWB Planet, and VoIP Planet. He blogs about the wireless industry at Wireless Weblog.

Originally published on .

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