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Hospitals becoming wireless hotbeds

Methodist Hospital deal with GE Healthcare, Sprint, an example of multi-spectrum wireless operations for voice, telemetry, patient monitoring

Over the last several years, many hospitals have gone from being no-cellphone zones to wide-open wireless environments, with multiple types of wireless networks co-existing to provide anywhere communications and real-time delivery of medical testing data and telemetry. GE Healthcare, a division of GE (NYSE: GE), has been at the center of this trend, teaming with MobileAccess for wireless LAN capabilities in its GE Carescape Enterprise Access platform for managing patient data, and then with Sprint  (NYSE:S) to also offer in-building voice and data transmission.

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The most recent GE-Sprint success was with Methodist Healthcare in San Antonio, Texas, where a converged wireless infrastructure is being deployed at six hospitals until a multi-million dollar contract. Methodist chose this approach to increase communications efficiency while protecting medical wireless data and information.

“We have to work to make hospitals more efficient,” said Eddie Cuellar, CIO of Methodist Healthcare. “Our doctors and nurses need tools that are wireless so that they don’t have to be tethered to a phone or a computer. If a nurse needs to reach a doctor with a question when she is administering some medication and that doctor is walking the halls of the hospital, wireless is the only way to reach him.”

Similarly, doctors need to get real-time test results for patients, wherever the doctor is and wherever the test is being administered, Cuellar said.

Because of a changing patient population, there is more urgent need for patient monitoring and real-time delivery of medical information to caretakers, said David Freeman, general manager for parameters for GE Healthcare.

“Because of demographics, hospitals are becoming like large ICUs – the level of illness is steadily on the rise,” Freeman said. “Being able to monitor more and more patients on the campus is increasingly important.”

The challenge is to put in a wireless infrastructure that can evolve, providing reliable coverage but also controlling interference and managing so that wireless becomes a true safety net, Freeman said. Having multiple types of wireless systems at work within one building, including wireless data networks, cellular voice networks and telemetry networks, can create interference, which is what led to the early ban on cellphones in hospitals.

“We are seeing increased use of wireless networks in hospitals, and managing all that spectrum becomes part of the challenge,” Freeman said. “These applications are different from standard telecom applications – this is critical patient information. In the same way that medical telemetry runs in separate spectrum and we have responsibility to insure end-to-end communications, that same thing applies in the patient monitoring space.”

For Methodist Hospital, moving to wireless is a cost issue, and managing the spectrum is an issue of both cost and interference, Cuellar said.

“We are reducing costs by reducing wireless infrastructure,” Cuellar said.  “Telemetry has been in its own wireless system. As we transition to newer telemetry devices, we are now putting those on the same wireless infrastructure, so we are laying the groundwork for a higher-end infrastructure.” 

By eliminating the need to string wires, however, and having a wireless system that can be centrally managed, Methodist can reduce the number of employees needed to operate and maintain the systems. “For every FTE [full-time equivalent] job I can cut, that’s another nurse we can hire,” Cuellar said.

In addition, Methodist is limiting the number of distributed antenna systems placed by wireless providers. Based on Sprint’s work, the new Methodist wireless infrastructure will be able to support WiMAX and 4G technologies in the future.

The use of wireless in hospitals is only going to expand, Freeman pointed out. GE earlier this month announced an initiative to create a body sensor network that operates wirelessly and replaces machines that currently monitor patients but keep them tethered to their beds, Freeman said. GE has asked the FCC to create a new, vendor-neutral dedicated radio frequency band for low-power, short-range, wireless patient monitoring devices, and the FCC responded with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to create a new Medical Body Area Network Service (MBANS).

The new Body Sensor Networks would not only allow patient mobility, which improves patient recovery rates,  but also would eliminate the need to be constantly connecting and disconnecting machines or pushing machines along with the patients as they are moved, Freeman said.

“Those cables and connectors get shared between patients, which is a potential vector for infection,” Freeman said. “Hospitals right now are really focused on avoiding hospital-caused infections.”

GE Healthcare partners with wireless operators where it makes sense to do so, Freeman said, as it did with Sprint in the San Antonio deployment, but the company also does its own R&D in the wireless arena, as well as in health care, through its Global Research center.
“We think there’s enough R&D to go around,” Freeman said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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