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July 21

Improving Indoor Cellular Connectivity in Healthcare

The healthcare industry has embraced mobile technology in a big way. From electronic health records (EHR) and the growing use of smartphones and tablets to equipment for remote patient monitoring and patients using wearables, the upward trend in healthcare toward mobility is growing rapidly.

The numbers are bearing this out. In a 2016 technology survey of physicians, the website Physicians Practice found that 59.2 percent of doctors say their practices have fully implemented EHR programs, while another 9.5 percent have selected the technology but have yet to fully roll it out. Almost 62 percent said their practice offers an online patient portal and almost 30 percent said they either use telemedicine technology or are interested in it. According to the survey, 45.4 percent of doctors use applications on their smartphones for their jobs, while 32.3 percent use a tablet. Almost 8 percent use mobile technology that monitors the health of their patients.

Healthcare has embraced mobile devices

It's not surprising. Mobile technology gives healthcare providers fast access to patient records, streamlines diagnosis and treatment, enables them to deliver care to patients even if they’re too far away to come to the hospital, and improves communication with other doctors, nurses and patients. Healthcare facilities can use it for everything from documentation to billing, making them faster, more accurate and more efficient. The Physicians Practice survey found that 86.2 percent of doctors use mobile technology to look up drug information, while 75.5 percent use it to look up diagnoses and treatments for specific diseases. Other uses range from reading journal articles to accessing and reviewing patient records to secure communications with patients.

But hospitals historically have had a difficult relationship with mobile devices. Healthcare facilities are rife with wireless signals, and many have limited or banned the use of such devices as smartphones and tablets by patients and visitors (and, in some instances, even doctors) for fear that they will interfere with those signals, which could put patient care at risk. Many of the wireless signals run over WiFi or cellular networks. However, smartphone use by doctors and others continues to grow (the days of using pagers are long gone), and healthcare workers increasingly use mobile patient information systems that run over wireless networks.

Increasingly mobile environments require reliable indoor cellular connectivity

As noted in a recent white paper by Zinwave, these trends highlight key challenges facing healthcare providers in an increasingly mobile environment. The most important may be ensuring that none of the wireless devices interfere with any medical devices and that data is secure and reliable. And almost as important is that wireless network coverage reaches every area in the hospital where the service is needed. Ensuring all this isn’t always easy. Hospitals tend to have exceptionally dense walls that can be difficult for signals from cell towers or WiFi networks to move through and are generally made up of many small rooms with walls that block signal. And smartphones and tablets – through their radio frequency (RF) power levels and electromagnetic fields – can interfere with wireless medical equipment regardless of the wireless network technology they’re running on, particularly if they have to run at high power levels to attempt to reach outdoor wireless networks .

Healthcare facilities need to find a better way to manage the mobile devices that are being used by doctors, staff, patients and visitors, and distributed antenna systems (DAS) can be that answer. A DAS features pairs of distributed amplifiers and antennas that are placed throughout the building to distribute cellular signal, similar to the way you would place sprinklers around a building for fire prevention. The amplifiers and antenna pairs are linked via cables to a central distribution hub, which itself connects to a small cell or base station that is the RF source being used by the mobile device, all of which distributes the service provider’s wireless signal to all parts of the building.

The DAS eliminates the threat of potential interference in multiple ways. Through the use of distributed antennas, the service provider’s signal is brought closer to the mobile device user and delivers consistent coverage throughout the building, enabling smartphones and tablets to run at minimum power levels. In addition, the creation of “micro-cells” in the building support large numbers of users and enhance the capacity and throughput of the mobile network, which can help drive productivity.

A DAS solution itself will be a source of low level RF emissions, but most system’s output power isn’t high enough to cause interference. The location also is important. Remote antennas usually are positioned in the ceilings, which puts them more than 6 inches away from mobile medical equipment, eliminating the possibility of interference.

The right DAS solution is critical in healthcare

A DAS promises to solve many of the challenges healthcare facilities are seeing as they embrace the mobility trend. It can eliminate the interference from smartphones and tablets on mobile medical equipment and can accelerate the adoption of mobile technologies that will help drive faster, more efficient operations, from the medical work done by doctors and other providers to the back-end administrative work. In addition, the right DAS solution prepares hospitals for the technologies coming down the road, such as 5G connectivity.

It also can eliminate a source of frustration for many in the field: frustration with inconsistent indoor cellular connectivity. In a recent survey by Zinwave, 74 percent of 1,000 respondents said they had frequent or occasional poor cellular coverage in their workplaces. The frustration was highest among healthcare workers, at 83 percent. Such connectivity problems can make it difficult for a hospital to attract or retain talented employees if doctors and other healthcare workers decide to move away or work at facilities with better coverage.

A distributed antenna system can enhance patient safety. Learn how in our white paper.

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