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."