Walk around almost any hospital, and you will see a highly wireless world. It’s also a world that will only become more mobile in the coming years, and as we have discussed before, this trend is rapidly changing everything in the industry. It’s creating new ways for healthcare providers to deliver care to their patients, giving doctors and nurses more ways to communicate among themselves and with others outside the hospital – some who are too far away to come into the office but still need help – and enabling the hospitals themselves to run more efficiently.
Video conferencing allows doctors to see patients on the other side of the county or the other side of the world. Remote monitoring devices track blood sugar levels or heart rates, and then wirelessly send that data back to the hospital, where caregivers can see how their patients are faring. Other mobile devices can remind patients to take their medication, and medical records are stored electronically and securely accessible on systems like tablets. Wireless technologies can be used for everything from documentation and staffing to billing.
This trend toward a more mobile healthcare environment is reflected in the numbers. Zion Market Research is predicting that the global mHealth market will grow from $1.47 billion in 2014 to $102.43 billion by 2022, and a 2016 survey of doctors by the website Physicians Practice found that 73.7 percent of doctors have practices that have fully implemented electronic health record (EHR) programs or a system provided by their hospital or parent company, and another 9.5 percent are heading in that direction. Almost 62 percent of survey respondents said they offer an online patient portal, and almost 30 percent said they either use telemedicine technology or are interested in it. Almost 8 percent use mobile technology for monitoring the health of their patients. Our own survey earlier this year found that healthcare employees ranked high in their daily use of mobile phones, with about 62 percent using them for both external and internal communications. When you think of mobile communication in healthcare, it’s no longer pagers; cell phones and smartphones are the way doctors and other healthcare providers communicate now.
The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) will accelerate the trend, not only through the growing numbers of healthcare providers using devices like smartphones and tablets, but with the rapidly increasing numbers of systems that rely on wireless connectivity.
As we talked about in our recent ebook for healthcare, all this mobility requires highly reliable cellular connectivity throughout the hospital, but such connectivity is not easy. Wireless signals run throughout healthcare facilities from various medical systems, and to reduce the chance of interference the signals for these life-saving machines, hospital administrators have looked to reduce the use of such devices as smartphones and tablets in the buildings. While many of those signs run over WiFi networks, the use of smartphones by doctors, nurses and hospital employees will continue to grow, and the number of wireless systems throughout the facilities, including in patient rooms, will only increase. Hospitals need to find connectivity solutions that can deliver reliable signals without interfering with medical systems. According a survey we conducted earlier this year, 83 percent of healthcare workers said they had to deal with poor cellular coverage some of the time, which can lead not only to frustration among doctors and other workers and convince, but also a loss of talented employees and, most importantly, an increasingly dangerous situation for patients.
Hospital administrators have no lack of connectivity options. They can range from repeaters and amplifiers to voice-over WiFi, and small cells, but they all come with challenges, from a lack of enterprise-class capabilities and interference from outside sources to dropped calls, no handoff to outdoor networks and gaps in coverage.
Another option is a distributed antenna system (DAS), which includes pairs of amplifiers and antennas placed throughout a building and linked through cables to a central hub. The hub connects to the radio-frequency source used by the mobile provider, and through the DAS, the carrier’s wireless signal is distributed to all parts of the building. There are no issues with capacity or network interference and there is a guaranteed level of service. Calls can seamlessly hand off from the inside network to one outside.
So what is important to have in a DAS solution? A key feature is an all-fiber system, with fiber optic cable running from its head end through to the antenna. Some DAS solutions are hybrids, with coaxial cable stretching from the backbone to the antenna. Fiber is cheaper to buy and install than coaxial cable, and it’s easier and faster to install, which not only reduces costs but also the disruption to the office environment during installation.
The DAS also should be able to amplify all major carrier and public safety cellular frequencies out of the box, which means frequencies between 150MHz and 2700MHz. Some solutions are able to amplify only one set of frequencies used by one carrier. Adding frequencies or other carriers usually means having to buy additional equipment. Support for all frequencies from day one means that bringing on new frequencies or carriers doesn’t mean more hardware investments, just some minor engineering tweaks.
The solution also needs to be ready for the future. Hospitals have evolved from desk phones to pagers to now smartphones, and on the horizon are the IoT, M2M technologies, 5G connectivity and new capabilities like location services. You’re going to need to add support for more carriers and frequencies, and if you have a DAS that already amplifies all the frequencies, you are ready for the future.
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are already hotbeds of wireless activity, and that will only expand in the future. Reliable in-building cellular connectivity is critical, and choosing the right solution will have ripple effects into the future. You’ll want to diagnose the situation correctly and prescribe the right treatment.