Hospital undergoes wireless surgery

Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital has made a strong effort to incorporate wireless technologies like Wi-Fi into its operations

For years, wireless technologies have only shown up in many U.S. hospitals in the form of rolling computers with Wi-Fi network access, but as evidenced at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital, times are changing.

Like many other medical care facilities, the 750-bed hospital located just north of Chicago's Loop district has struggled over the last decade to find ways to push wireless devices and applications deeper into its operations without causing undo headaches for its workers, patients, and IT infrastructure.

Under a new effort aimed at re-architecting its internal network and using a handful of technologies built by GE Healthcare, hospital executives say the institution is finally appreciating many new caregiving and patient support opportunities that untethered access has long promised to deliver.

The hospital's urban location has made it difficult in years past simply to get a reliable wireless phone signal, said Chuck Colander, director of the Chief Technology Office at Northwestern Memorial.

By working directly with the five individual mobile service providers that cover its geographical area and using an integrated wireless platform sold by GE under the product name Carescape Enterprise Access, Colander said that the facility is finally getting its calls through -- as well as adopting new telemetry applications for medical devices and preparing to tap into wireless VoIP.

"Wireless is obviously nothing new in health care, but we've been severely limited in the past in terms of what we could offer to support our mobile caregivers and patients," Colander said. "We've never even had a strong signal in the building, so as we started on our campus development program, we needed something denser to prepare for a future that involves handheld devices and broadband technologies, not just for our workforce but also for patients."

One of the greatest benefits of program thus far has been Northwestern Memorial's work to bring wireless telemetry, or monitoring, onto more of its floors, said the IT executive.

Whereas only a few of the hospital's rooms were previously capable of allowing for the technologies -- used in portable heart monitors and other measurement equipment -- now the institution has much greater flexibility as to where it can locate patients who need such devices and in allowing those patients to move about its halls with greater freedom.

The difference between having patients physically tied to certain rooms in the facility versus the gaining freedom to move them or let them move themselves around the hospital is a huge advantage, he said.

"In the previous scenario, when people were attached to one of these devices, they essentially couldn't move without being disconnected or having someone carry the unit, but by being able to expand coverage and be more flexible, we've been able to increase capacity by threefold," said Colander. "We can also monitor patients while they move throughout the building, which is a tremendous boost to the overall quality of care and patient experience."

The expanded wireless coverage has also made it possible for patients and their families to stay better in touch using mobile phones, an important capability in light of the fact that people are often moved between different rooms as their care evolves, according to the executive.

The system has even allowed the hospital to begin offering wireless Internet connectivity to patients forced to spend long periods of time under its roof using a sequestered network that is fully partitioned away from its internal infrastructure, which carries sensitive information and records.

Wireless IT in hospitals still nascent

In addition to working with the GE technology, Northwestern Memorial has also installed some 2.5 million feet of new wired network infrastructure to support its efforts, including the backbone of an all new care facility being constructed on its campus.

During the next phase of its wireless rollout, the institution is planning to hand out mobile devices to more of its doctors and nurses that will allow them to capture vital signs and feed the information directly into patients' healthcare files. The old-school wired nurse call buttons in its rooms will soon be replaced with wireless VoIP-based alternatives as well.

"We rolled the dice on some things, but so far, it's turned out very well. When we tried to talk to other organizations that were in the same position, it was clear that for all the available technologies wireless is still fairly nascent in healthcare," said Colander. "The key for us has been trying to do this all in small steps and using pilot programs; in this environment, there's no way you could pull off something this significant in one swoop without causing problems."

Among the challenges the hospital faced during its technology pilots was finding monitoring devices that would work well with various models of wireless antennas, but that situation has improved over the last several years as vendors of the technologies have begun working more closely together, he said.

Munesh Makhija, general manager of the Systems & Wireless Monitoring group at GE Healthcare, said that despite the availability of many new technologies, some hospitals are still struggling to adopt as many tools as they'd like to.

Aging facilities and tightened IT budgets -- along with concerns over regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) -- have slowed adoption somewhat, but health care organizations finally seem to be gaining momentum in getting more tools into workers' hands, he said.

"It's a real challenge among customers to respond, there is greater pressure from sicker patients for new care alternatives, there are fewer nurses and doctors, stiffer regulatory demands, and new metrics coming from the government that demand that hospitals make information more readily available to support care and reduce errors," Makhija said.

"I've worked with customers in many different sectors in the past, and the demands in health care right now are truly unique," he said. "The impact of mobility in the workforce and how critical it is for people to get to work as a team can have a huge impact on patients when everyone has ubiquitous access to the most relevant information."