Keep the wireless network healthy

March 23, 2010

LibertyHealth upgraded its wireless network to assure users had the 24-hour access needed by healthcare applications.

Michael Verna, LibertyHealth's technical support manager, wanted to expand bedside registration beyond the emergency department and add new wireless applications that require seamless roaming.

Patients' vital signs are not the only information LibertyHealth needs to monitor at its hospitals, health centers and other facilities in the Jersey City, N.J., region. From high-tech infant care and adult surgery to in-hospital rehabilitation and home-care services, the system's medical personnel depend on a wide range of networked applications. These, in turn, depend on a reliable wireless network.

Nurses use bedside patient registration to streamline intake, doctors communicate with non-English-speaking patients through video-based translation services, and pharmacists keep track of drug dosages through a mobile supply inventory system. Most of these require wireless connectivity, which in a life-critical and time-sensitive environment means that the network's health has to be constantly monitored.

Until recently, the prognosis was grim. The wireless network in the emergency department proved to be unpredictable and often stopped working entirely over the weekend, forcing staff to go back to less-efficient wired networks or manual systems. LibertyHealth solved its problems by virtualizing the wireless LAN, replacing the older system with a next-generation virtualized wireless local area network (WLAN) that ensures optimum performance for every application, assuring staff that connectivity will be available when they need it most.

LibertyHealth's first wireless network covered the emergency department at its Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC). It provided basic connectivity for patient registration, but was not reliable enough to meet the 24/7 needs of emergency care.

“It would stop working at 6 p.m. on Fridays and be down for the entire weekend,” says Michael Verna, LibertyHealth's technical support manager. “We had no idea why this was happening. We wanted to not only fix that situation, but also expand bedside registration beyond the emergency department and add new wireless applications that require seamless roaming.”

Verna investigated multiple wireless systems, but most could not offer the assurance of reliable coverage that his applications needed. “Of the wireless vendors we looked at — including our incumbent switch and router vendor — only Meru Networks offered to install a pilot network,” he says. “The weekend the Meru WLAN went up was the first time we got no complaints from the emergency department — all our coverage issues had gone away.”

As a result, LibertyHealth deployed Meru Networks' WLAN architecture throughout its hospitals to provide 24/7 facility-wide wireless access to its staff, patients and visitors. Installed in 2008 in both the JCMC and Meadowlands Hospital (Secaucus), Meru's virtualized WLAN immediately solved the wireless infrastructure instability problems that LibertyHealth's IT department had been grappling with for years. Meru's architecture now provides the hospital with the reliability that is essential to supporting a wide range of wireless applications and also supports a public network for patients and visitors, which is segregated from the rest of the WLAN for privacy reasons.

Verna admits he was initially skeptical about Meru's “virtual-cell” approach, which departs from the legacy “micro-cell” approaches offered by other vendors, by assigning all access points to a single channel rather than placing neighboring access points (APs) on separate channels. This simplifies network design and rollout, as it means that channel assignments and power levels do not have to be calculated separately for each AP. In traditional networks, however, it leads to co-channel interference, which reduces performance and interrupts connectivity.

“I didn't really believe it would work, but I plugged in an AP, walked away and within minutes it was up and I had a full RF signal,” Verna recalls. “During implementation, we handed the installation process off to our cabling vendor; they mounted the APs and set up the antennas, and we were able to verify operation on the Meru console as each AP came up.

“For a small, resource-constrained IT shop like ours, this simple installation and management is great,” he adds. “With other vendors, we would have had to configure every single AP on site. With Meru we can just set all the configurations on the controller, plug in the AP and go.”

Meru's approach also reduced operating costs. “We started out thinking we'd need 170 APs and ended up getting the coverage we needed with 20 percent fewer units,” says Verna. “The end cost of the WLAN came in at about half of what other vendors proposed.”

Brad Johnson of Atrion Communications Resources, the Branchburg, N.J., integrator that worked with LibertyHealth on its WLAN deployment, says, “As hospitals depend increasingly on wireless for critical communication and documentation, it's imperative that the network be stable and reliable. A single-channel virtual-cell architecture is able to handle a huge influx of users signing on at the same time. We tried to 'break' it ourselves and failed, so we knew it wouldn't break at the customer site. Meru's WLAN is completely plug-and-play: if more coverage is needed after initial installation, the hospital's IT team can easily install additional APs on their own.”

The Meru WLAN deployment at LibertyHealth's two hospitals includes 148 AP302 access points, which ship with IEEE 802.1a/b/g functionality but can later be upgraded to high-performance 802.11n with just a software update. They also scan for 802.11n security threats even when in legacy mode, ensuring that networks that have not yet upgraded to 802.11n are protected from rogue access points.

Two MC4100 controllers in each hospital provide redundant centralized management, connected to the APs through the hospital's existing Nortel Ethernet LAN. The two hospitals are linked together by DS3 SONET fiber.

Installed in 2008 in both the JCMC and Meadowlands Hospital (Secaucus), the virtualized WLAN immediately solved the wireless infrastructure instability problems that LibertyHealth's IT department had been grappling with for years.

LibertyHealth's future plans call for adding wall-mounted Ergotron wireless units that support emergency department information-manager (EDIM) systems, which document patient encounters and track patient movement and progress throughout a hospital visit.

For more information on
Meru Networks solutions:

March 2010

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