This is an edited version of a blog post from 7SIGNAL which originally appeared here.
Hospital CIOs view Wi-Fi as essential to their operations, so not just any Wi-Fi will do. The healthcare environment demands a “medical-grade” WLAN with the availability and Wi-Fi performance required for critical communications and biomedical devices. IT leaders must also be able to deliver pervasive connectivity and support high levels of roaming while managing the security, regulatory and other issues that come with BYOD.
Unfortunately, a number of persistent problems have made it difficult for hospital CIOs to achieve the necessary service levels and realize a return on investment in the form of reduced costs, increased operational efficiency and improved staff productivity. Below are seven Wi-Fi performance challenges hospital face:
Some hospitals have implemented Wi-Fi incrementally to support specific applications or areas within the facility — designs once were sufficient but now contribute to a fragmented WLAN infrastructure. Many other hospitals have poorly designed WLANs that are simply incapable of meeting the demands of the medical environment.
Hospitals are some of the most sophisticated buildings on earth constructed from numerous materials including masonry, concrete, not to mention lead-lined radiology rooms and elevator shafts all over the place.
Then hidden behind the walls and ceilings are thousands of miles of copper and ducting for numerous independent services such as air, water, oxygen, ventilation and many more.
All of these building materials block radio frequency (RF) signals to one degree and create quite simply a horrible RF environment where dead spots are hard to eradicate, and attenuation is unpredictable from room to room.
New issues are introduced continually in this dynamic environment as new medical Wi-Fi devices and equipment create interference on the same spectrum used by Wi-Fi.
High Bandwidth Demands
For years, the resolution of medical imaging has been improving on a logarithmic trajectory. Today a hospital’s picture archiving and communication system (PACS) gobbles up many terabytes of storage every day. At 5-20 Mb per slice and 300 slices per scan, we’re talking several gigabytes to pull a full series of images from an MRI or CT scan to a mobile device at the point of care.
Video usage is on the rise too. In the form of telemedicine, remote consulting and of course the biggest of user all: patients and guests with their tablets and smartphones. It doesn’t matter how you segregate patients and clinical staff from a security perspective. At the end of the day, they all share the same air.
Sure, you can throttle-down the public Wi-Fi, and prioritize mission critical applications, but only to a point. If the Wi-Fi is unusable by patients and they can’t stream Netflix, you won’t hear the end of it. They’ll be nagging the nursing staff non-stop, even though there is nothing they can do about it.
More IoT Devices Means More Airtime
In the case of IoT devices the problem is two-fold. The sheer number of medical devices being added to the network, and the ambient traffic they generate. Although the amount of data from each device is small, keeping all those devices alive, especially if they are moving, consumes a lot of airtime. Also because of the sensitive nature of some of these devices there is a tendency for the number of SSIDs to bloat, which is a sure-fire way to erode Wi-Fi airtime even more.
Quantity and Diversity of Devices
There are also problems with the devices themselves — CIOs report serious issues with hardware and device drivers that prevent devices from connecting to the WLAN. Keeping pace with the vast variety of devices and all of the manufacturer’s updates is a time-consuming chore. Device density is also a challenge, as growing numbers of wireless-enabled biomedical devices compete with smartphones and tablets for wireless network access. Many hospitals struggle to scale their WLANs effectively to meet escalating bandwidth requirements.
The WLAN often is unable to provide the seamless hand-offs between access points (APs) that are necessary to prevent dropped calls as doctors, nurses and staff roam throughout the facility. In addition, jittery voice connections and overall poor voice quality due to bottlenecks and other WLAN throughput issues prevent doctors and staff from communicating effectively.
Security and Regulatory Compliance
Many CIOs report that security and regulatory compliance requirements exacerbate WLAN challenges. Hospitals must implement an integrated policy enforcement strategy to ensure that user-owned devices accessing the network meet Data Protection Act and GDPR standards for protecting sensitive patient data.