July 27 2010
Featured Article
Transform your healthcare services with wireless communications

You can avoid many of the pitfalls associated with rolling out in-building (or campus-wide) wireless communications by following these guidelines.

By Kelley Carr

In today's competitive environment, healthcare organizations are seeking new technologies to increase efficiencies and reduce costs while enhancing patient care. In hospitals, where patients and medical staff are constantly moving, communication and accuracy have become difficult to manage. Many healthcare organizations are looking to transform their facilities with wireless communications. Approval hurtles, product requirements and the installation barriers of providing wireless connectivity within buildings and campus environments can be overwhelming.

As wireless technology evolves, selecting the appropriate upgrade path is critical to maintaining communications among hospital personnel. Healthcare organizations can avoid pitfalls associated with rolling out in-building (or campus-wide) wireless communications by following a few guidelines to help navigate through the various applications and solution options available. These guidelines will help define goals for wireless coverage, clarify systems and solutions to address the specific needs and constraints of a hospital and offer funding and budget options.

A wireless network within a healthcare organization will enable the use of a multitude of wireless devices including 3G/4G smartphones, WiFi, PDAs, VOIP, public safety radios and healthcare technologies such as RFID, EMR, Nurse Call and others.

Instead of disruptive paging systems, the majority of physicians prefer to use wireless devices such as smartphones and WLAN-enhanced medical applications. In order for these devices and applications to work efficiently, hospitals must ensure that there is wireless connectivity throughout their facility and/or campus.

An effective system design must take into consideration the physical barriers in the hospital that shield the distribution of RF (radio frequencies) - including wall structure and density, X-ray rooms and coated glass.

The success of an in-building wireless technology deployment depends solely on the vendor the healthcare organization selects as a partner. A qualified vendor can determine the best technology solution by analyzing the specific requirements and objectives based on the unique technical requirements of the facility, RF environment both outside and inside the facility, specific cellular services, public safety, 802.11 a/b/g/n and other integration requirements, and the current and future coverage requirements of the facility as it relates to scalability of existing and future deployments. The vendor must provide and ensure full project management that should include: site survey, wireless needs assessment, RF system design, carrier approval (if 3G/4G coverage is needed), project management, installation and system integration, commissioning and testing and on-going maintenance and systems support.

Healthcare organizations planning a wireless deployment need to involve the wireless carrier (ATT, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) of their choice as early in the process as possible. This ensures that all carrier guidelines and network requirements are met, and approved equipment and installation techniques are utilized.

Designing a wireless infrastructure with scalability for future growth without a complete overhaul will eliminate additional cost to the healthcare organization. The utilization of existing fiber and other cabling can help mitigate system costs as well.

A real-time example of a successful wireless implementation is Scottsdale Healthcare in Scottsdale, Ariz. They were able to leverage their existing cabling infrastructure without sacrificing future scalability. They utilized the hospital's existing fiber backbone and augmented it with a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) that included in-building repeaters and broadband antennas. The new network operates at data speeds provided by carrier networks, with a future migratory path to WLAN if the hospital decides to take advantage of it.

With budget restraints facing most organizations in today's downturn economy, healthcare organizations can benefit from various funding options available. Determining which of these options are best suitable should be a discussion shared with your vendor and wireless carrier(s).

Carrier funding: All of the major wireless service providers have funds available for healthcare organizations interested in improving indoor signal. Improving indoor coverage enables the carrier to retain and grow their customer base. However, there are some trade-offs to consider in exchange for the carrier funding. The carrier will typically require a minimum contracted revenue or subscriber commitment, as well as on-site access during the term of the agreement. In order to obtain funding, the carrier will evaluate the cost of the system as it relates to the existing revenue or potential revenue of the hospital account.

Carrier and hospital shared funding: There are times when the carrier is willing to pay for a portion of the in-building wireless system. In this case, typically the hospital would pay for the distributed antenna system (DAS) and the carrier would pay for the head-end equipment. In this scenario, the hospital will maintain control of the system as well as have the ability to define the system type: single carrier vs. multiple carriers on the system.

Self-funding: If a hospital plans to pay for and implement a DAS solution within their facility, it is critical to inform the wireless service providers of your intention to enhance or extend their network services into the facility. An experienced indoor DAS installation vendor can lead you through the steps of system design, estimates, installation and maintenance procedures. By paying for the DAS system, the hospital has full control over the technologies implemented as well as greater flexibility and scalability for future applications.

Leasing options: Lease financing is a means to fund the acquisition of DAS equipment, installation labor and system maintenance. This approach is very common within the IT sector and has spread to the wireless telecommunication space. Leasing can relieve budgetary constraints by preserving working capital to meet the day-to-day needs of your healthcare organization. A typical lease has a variety of multi-year level monthly payments with purchase options at the end of the term. This allows the hospital to budget and manage equipment expenses for months and years in advance.

Funding the DAS should also include a budget for maintenance. Typically, the first year maintenance costs are covered under a warranty provided by the installation vendor. Multi-year maintenance agreements are available on a time and material basis or for a flat rate. Flat rate agreements are usually priced as a percentage of the total system cost. Rates average 10 percent for the DAS investment, but they can vary significantly depending on expected response time, union requirements and services included during the term of the agreement.

In conclusion, the value proposition of in-building wireless technology deployment for healthcare organizations far surpasses the investment costs and can transform the operations to allow organizations to offer a more efficient working environment and higher-quality patient care. Wireless-friendly offerings will provide improved quality of care, increased productivity, reduced costs and improved public safety.

Kelley Carr, president of Cellular Specialties (CSI)s Custom Solutions Group, has more than 15 years of experience in the wireless industry. For more information on Cellular Specialties, click here.

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