Sound Wireless Strategy

June 24, 2011
Gene Gretzer As more hospitals turn to wireless networking technology to improve productivity and patient care, IT administrators are faced with
Gene Gretzer
As more hospitals turn to wireless networking technology to improve productivity and patient care, IT administrators are faced with the dual challenge of ensuring these networks are robust enough to support critical applications, and secure enough to protect patient information.

St. Luke's Episcopal Health System in Houston has addressed both of these issues with a mobile virtual private network (VPN) solution from Seattle-based NetMotion Wireless that provides staff with ubiquitous, secure access to clinical systems as they move throughout the hospital complex.

This year, St. Luke's is extending its Cisco Systems (San Jose, Calif.) IEEE 802.11a/b/g wireless network to include several new clinics and hospital facilities, as well as additional applications and medical devices. To support that growth, the hospital has expanded its deployment of the NetMotion Mobility XE system to include an additional 900 notebooks and other devices.

“We're seeing an expansion of the systems that the various departments want to connect to the wireless network,” says Gene Gretzer, senior analyst and wireless initiative project leader at St. Luke's. “As different departments see the increased efficiency that's possible, they want to migrate to that environment.”

The St. Luke's system includes the 912-bed Episcopal Hospital and Texas Heart Institute in Houston, a community medical center in The Woodlands, the Kelsey-Seybold Clinics, several emergency clinics, and a new facility that's under construction in nearby Sugar Land. The award-winning hospital is known for leveraging technological innovation to improve patient care, and wireless has been a key part of its technology strategy for more than a decade.

“When we started out using wireless, our primary objective was to improve patient care at the bedside,” says Jack Sandefur, assistant vice president, information management, and CIO at St. Luke's. “We view wireless as an integral part of our technology mix.”

Almost every department, from respiratory therapy, X-ray and neurology, to occupational therapy, radiology and emergency, has gone wireless at St. Luke's. The wireless LAN provides real-time access to McKesson's Star and Horizon information systems (including CPOE), the MedPlus (Mason, Ohio) Chartmaxx EMR system, a bar code-based medication administration system (McKesson Horizon Admin-Rx), the Cardinal Health (Dublin, Ohio) Care Fusion/BloodCare tracking system, and MediLogistics’ (Houston) BedCentral bed management system. The hospital even provides wireless Internet access for patients and their families.

Keeping all of these applications running smoothly requires security, constant connectivity, and device accountability, which is where NetMotion Mobility XE comes in. St. Luke's first deployed the NetMotion system in 2001 because staff members using hand-held devices were having difficulty staying connected as they walked through the facility. The VPN not only helped solve the connectivity problem, but also provided an additional level of encryption and security.

Jack Sandefur
Ease of use was an important consideration in selecting and deploying the VPN, Gretzer says. Authorized devices are automatically connected to the network, and authentication is handled through individual applications. That reduces the number of logins for employees, while maintaining the integrity of the applications and patient data.

“All patient data has to go through the NetMotion system,” Gretzer says. “Mobile devices have to be granted access at several different layers.” If one of the hospital's laptops or PDAs goes missing from the network, the IT staff receives an alert and can disable the device's network authorization.

Wireless improves patient care

Wireless LANs are now fairly common in U.S. hospitals, and like St. Luke's, many facilities are expanding networks to support more applications and a variety of medical devices that, for the first time, now include onboard processing power and wireless capabilities.

“The whole concept of moving to a wireless environment is to move these devices and applications closer to the point of care,” says Barry Runyon, research director at Gartner, Stamford, Conn. “Being able to follow the patient with these devices, rather than moving the patient to where the equipment is, really provides better quality care and improves patient safety.”

Properly managing application deployment is a key element of a successful wireless strategy. While wireless networking began as something of an ad hoc exercise at St. Luke's, the hospital has since developed a robust evaluation process for adding new applications to the network.

IT staff analyze each application to ensure that it won't overload the network or interfere with other systems, and can provide adequate security. “We don't allow applications on the network that aren't secure or are not HIPAA compliant,” Gretzer says. “We also test the application to make sure it doesn't slow down the network, and we check for wireless equipment interference.” Gretzer adds that the majority of St. Luke's software providers have optimized their applications for use on a wireless network, which makes integration even easier.

Sandefur says that one of the biggest challenges at St. Luke's was preparing the entire network support and IT team for the transition to wireless. “I think the biggest mistake we made early on was that the network staff was focused on the hardwired environment, and the applications team was focused, to a certain extent, on wireless,” he says. “We could have done a better job of integrating that up front, but we've overcome that over the past few years.”

Moving forward

While St. Luke's has more than doubled the number of access points in the hospital, Sandefur says there hasn't been any need to increase staff to support the expanding network, and credits improved monitoring tools from Cisco that have made it easier to centrally manage the network infrastructure.

St. Luke's plans to expand its wireless capabilities even further with new facilities coming on line over the next year, and hopes to add more medical devices to the network — the hospital has already purchased mobile X-ray machines, and wireless EKG machines could be next.

“Capturing information at the source of care significantly improves our efficiency,” Sandefur says. “Our goal is to become not paperless, but paper-lite, and reduce as much paper as possible. Using wireless technology helps to improve patient care and administrative workflow.”

Brian Albright is a contributing writer based in Columbus, Ohio.

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