Paging (and Tracking) Dr. Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

February 17, 2006

Healthcare’s latest IT exhibition was replete with wireless for use in management, communications and asset tracking.

While much of the wireless trade show focus this week was on voice at the 3GSM World Congress in Spain, there was an awful lot of wireless in San Diego as well at the HIMSS06 Annual Conference & Exhibition put on by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.

Names familiar to the world of corporate Wi-Fi were in attendance with new products, new partners and announcements of big healthcare facility deployments.

Meru Networks, for example, was not just an exhibitor but also provided the Wi-Fi infrastructure used at the show’s Integrating the Healthcare Enterprise (IHE) Interoperability Showcase to give attendees quick Internet access. The bigger news for the vendor was that St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, is replacing its legacy 802.11b/g network with the Meru WLAN system for data access and VoIP communication using a number of SpectraLink phones and as many as 500 Vocera badges, some of which are even used by patients.

Meru was joined at the show by some competitors. BlueSocket announced the expansion of its BlueView Management System (BVMS) to control third-party access point from Cisco, Proxim, Avaya and 3Com, plus a deployment with Mount Carmel Health of Columbus, Ohio, which is using BVMS to take advantage of legacy APs. Aruba Networks was there to announce new location tracking abilities provided by interoperating with equipment from Ekahau.

In fact, asset location tracking continues to be big in healthcare where facilities don’t want the passive RFID found in warehouses, but more active RFID that can give administrators not only the location, but also other information about what is being tracked — all while tracking the equipment over the existing WLAN.

Ekahau, one of the long time makers of a Wi-Fi-based active RFID solution, was at the show showing off a new tag that employees can wear, which also serves as a panic button. Pushing a button on the tag will bring help directly to the wearer’s location. The panic button tags are already in use in hospitals in Finland, France and Spain. Ekahau is also working with Sigma International, a maker of IV pumps, on making Ekahau software-embedded modules specifically for tracking those high-tech pumps. The latter is part of a company partner building initiative called “Located by Ekahau.”

Ekahau’s new hospital partners using the company’s Real-Time Location System (RTLS) for asset tracking include Dwight David Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Last week, Ekahau even announced a new system to track the position of underground miners... very timely, in this era of a new mine disaster each month. They’ve already installed it in a 25 kilometer long tunnel in Leon, Spain.

Competitors AeroScout and PanGo Networks were also at HIMSS06. AeroScout has a partnership with GTSI Corp. to provide location functions to GTSI’s main customers: veteran’s hospitals across the United States. GTSI uses Cisco infrastructure equipment to build out WLANs, and Cisco and AeroScout announced that hospitals in Reading, Pennsylvania and Seoul, South Korea are using the new Cisco 2700 Series Wireless Location Appliance in conjunction with AeroScout Wi-Fi tracking tags. Last week, AeroScout announced plans to work with Emergin, InfoLogix, MobileAccess Networks and others for integration and reselling.

PanGo Networks will land at Denver Health (formerly Denver General Hospital) in August of this year, specifically in the new Women's and Children's Pavilion. The  PanGo Locator technology — built into a Locator from Four Rivers Software Systems—will track as many as 1,000 devices, again working with the Cisco 2700 Location Appliance. Emergin and MobileAccess are also PanGo partners. (Emergin works with everyone — it did a demo with Ekahau at the show as well, of hospital staff alert “triggers” such as calling a doctor.)

Brand new at HIMSS06 in the asset tracking field is InnerWireless. The company’s first RF location system is called Spot, but it isn’t using Wi-Fi. Spot is built upon 802.15.4 — the incredibly low-power  wireless personal area network (WPAN) specification used by ZigBee and others. InnerWireless says it skipped the Wi-Fi to “[avoid] the IP address proliferation caused by piggybacking on a hospital’s existing 802.11 wireless data networks.” It will probably cost less than Wi-Fi tags and, if it's anything like ZigBee, will create a mesh network so that you don’t need many sensors to track items on the network -- just two master radios per floor. The company’s Medical-Grade Wireless Utility is already installed in 25 medical facilities in the U.S., including Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

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