Wireless makes inroads in hospitals

February 8, 2001

Wireless communication technology already meets some needs in today's healthcare world in spite of limitations in its applicability, a HIMSS audience learned Tuesday afternoon. "Healthcare providers need time-sensitive data immediately," said Michael

Wireless communication technology already meets some needs in today's healthcare world in spite of limitations in its applicability, a HIMSS audience learned Tuesday afternoon.

"Healthcare providers need time-sensitive data immediately," said Michael A. McNeal, president and CEO of Emergin, a wireless technology company in Boca Raton, FL. "Information needs to be communicated in a timely manner, and HIPAA compliance (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) requires patient information to be secure and available anytime, anywhere."

Wireless technology can also help meet Health Care Financing Administration guidelines for quality of patient care. Response time is becoming increasingly important. Seconds can make a life or death difference when attending a patient, and responding promptly to hazardous material alerts is also more crucial than ever, he said.

While wireless applications can be found in most hospital departments, three departments are most likely to find the technology attractive: IT, clinical operations, and plant operations. One Kaiser Permanente hospital is using the technology in IT to reduce network downtime by a measurable percentage, according to McNeal.

"Wireless can help IT with HIPAA compliance and network security by monitoring networks, firewalls, and patient records," he said.

Plant operation applications are found in the monitoring of HVAC systems, fire alarms, and access control. Clinical operations applications include nurse calls, code blues, and patient monitoring. For instance, wireless technology can be used to monitor call light response, McNeal said.

"If a nurse doesn't respond in a specified time interval, an alarm is triggered and a silent message can be sent to other department personnel or to the physician," he said.

Silent notification is an attractive feature of the technology. Some hospitals have virtually eliminated noise pollution from paging systems by using silent wireless messaging, according to McNeal. At Boca Raton Hospital, wireless technology is delivering more than 2000 alerts per week to more than 680 devices.

"They've reduced response time to network alerts from 15 minutes to two minutes," McNeal said.

Wireless comes in either "push" or "pull" versions.

Push technology can either be manual or automated. Manual dispatching of information requires human intervention. Nurses, for example, may type a message into a PC that facilities or maintenance is needed to change a light bulb in a room. Automated versions require no human intervention, for example, when linking software monitors critical care systems, fire alarms, or security. When preestablished thresholds are exceeded, the system automatically triggers the alarm to maintenance, nursing, or a physician.

Pull technology, which is becoming more and more prevalent in healthcare facilities, includes systems in which a physician queries a patient record using a personal digital assistant.

Wireless technology includes three major types:
- 1-way, which delivers data to a mobile device;
- 1.5-way, which uses a mobile device that has the capability to confirm receipt of the message, particularly important for mission-critical alarms; and
- 2-way, which has the ability to send and receive data with a mobile device.

The benefits of implementing wireless, which McNeal claims integrates seamlessly with hardware and software, include the ability to reduce response times and automate urgent alarms.

"No desks are required," he said. "Nurses and doctors are always on the move."