Wireless connectivity underpins the essential functions of today’s hospitals. It affects more than just real-time interaction and cost savings — it creates meaningful experiences that improve the standard of care. Connectivity has changed the way healthcare is administered for the better.
The only problem? When connectivity is interrupted, the entire system comes to a grinding halt.
Poor connectivity can hamstring a hospital in both service delivery and patient satisfaction. The problem has only become more glaring during COVID-19 as wireless networks strain to accommodate remote care and a surging influx of patients.
How Connectivity Enhances Hospital Services
Connectivity and wireless solutions are embedded into life-saving medical equipment at hospitals around the world. Just think about how many wireless devices in any given hospital depend on fast, reliable connectivity, made even more essential during the COVID-19 response.
Here are a few examples:
- Internet of Things (IoT) medical devices like MRIs or wireless physiological monitors
- Electronic health records (EHRs)
- Clinical communications between medical professionals
- Mobile apps for patients
- Internet access for patients and guests
In some cases, devices are even embedded into patients as "wearables": IoT devices like pumps, pressure sensor implants, and pacemakers now allow for remote monitoring via a network connection. In others, these solutions take the form of software that enhances a doctor's reading of an EKG scan.
One of the most common ways in which hospitals rely on connectivity is electronic access to patient records, which typically also includes appointment schedules and medications. Providers can now enter a given room and simply swipe their badge at the computer terminal to gain access to the waiting patient's digital chart.
Yet connectivity isn't always simple. If the network isn't properly secured and the electronic records are hacked, a hospital's operations can be thrown into disarray — last fall, several large hospitals barely functioned for over a month due to cyberattacks.
Wireless networks are also particularly challenging in hospitals because of their infrastructure: their modular design and thick walls make it difficult for wireless signals to travel from one area to another, particularly in operating rooms and radiology. During COVID-19, more and more patients are receiving care in so-called “dead zones,” presenting challenges for both IoT medical equipment and patient connectivity. Furthermore, when doctors can’t talk to their support teams, they cannot administer care effectively, which can threaten the viability of entire departments.
The Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 has accelerated and expanded the need for these connectivity-enabled solutions. Providers need to remain safe while operating on the front lines, but they also need as much data and connection as possible.
Wireless devices make that possible: wearables and patient apps are a key way for doctors to gather patient medical data without the need for risky in-person visits.
On the cutting edge of wireless devices, IoT devices can track COVID-19 vaccine shipments all over the world, monitoring the precise conditions of storage and transportation. Sensors can relay live positioning and temperature data. Such technological precision is critical for this high-stakes treatment and vital to a medical supply chain that sometimes requires storage temperatures of -70 Celsius. Naturally, it also requires reliable connectivity everywhere the vaccine shipments travel.
How Connectivity Boosts Patient Satisfaction
As essential as connectivity-based care delivery is, it's not the only purpose of hospital networks. The same wireless solutions that power medical equipment and records are also a cornerstone of the overall patient experience. Over three-quarters of hospitals use WiFi for both guest access and clinical communications, and a majority also use it for medical devices and patient records.
Hospitals spend millions of dollars each year to improve patient satisfaction. One of the most common, effective solutions is providing free WiFi. It's a benefit that patients and their visitors alike can leverage for communication, entertainment, or even work while in the hospital. But WiFi has real limitations if it’s the only option for hospital systems.
With the sudden onset of COVID-19 and dramatic shift towards telehealth, doctors and nurses now use WiFi for a very high volume of sustained video calling. For telehealth patients, session quality isn't a welcome amenity. It's critical. Hospitals need to ensure that remote service is just as strong as in-person service to maintain patient satisfaction. This means that WiFi must meet the needs of several parties at once, and most networks aren’t designed to address such demand.
One of the results is lower quality for guest WiFi networks, which become overloaded as more wireless devices and telehealth sessions are set up. Patient satisfaction surveys have started to reflect that problem — and when many patients are isolated with visitor restrictions due to the pandemic, degraded connectivity is unacceptable. Patient satisfaction surveys also have an outsized impact on access to federal funding, so hospitals may suffer financially if they don’t tackle networking issues head-on. When it comes to connectivity, both reputation and financial solvency are on the line.
The Critical Question: What Kind of Connectivity?
Technological advancement has raised service levels, satisfaction, and expectations for staff, doctors, and patients alike. And for the vast majority of hospitals, all of this core functionality is built on a WiFi foundation that grows shakier by the month.
As the above networking challenges demonstrate, it's clear that WiFi alone isn't a sustainable solution. Over half of recently surveyed healthcare professionals cited WiFi coverage as a problem area, while 39% cited cell coverage as a challenge. Another survey found that hospital IT professionals are highly concerned about security, performance, coverage, and critical availability when it comes to wireless coverage in their hospitals.
Combined with the challenges presented by hospital infrastructure discussed above, we're left with dead zones, over-reliance on antiquated technologies like pagers, and the reality that hospitals need innovative connectivity solutions to meet their current level of network usage.
New Connectivity Solutions
As the world now knows, hospitals in Italy were ravaged by the consequences of COVID-19, particularly early on. They leveraged specialized solutions based on 5G — a cellular network connection with faster average speeds than WiFi — to respond to these challenges and boost efficiency. Providers were able to use 5G to quickly share high-resolution scans between locations to keep radiology departments moving swiftly, as well as monitor some patients' data remotely via wearable devices to avoid in-person treatment.
The director of that 5G program in Italy took a clear lesson from the situation: "Continuity of service has to be assured while operating remotely... remote-access control, social distancing monitoring, remote patient care, and radiology consultation became top priorities to guarantee operational continuity in the emergency.”
One of the best ways for hospitals to take advantage of the benefits of 5G and obtain such continuity is via distributed antenna systems (DAS). This technology uses antennas built into the hospital itself to project a 4G LTE and 5G cellular network specifically for the hospital's use, so providers can leverage it for records, devices, and more to accommodate mission-critical hospital functions.
QMC's approach to DAS is designed with patient satisfaction and healthcare operations in mind. We subvert historical models to counteract challenges like financing models and access to carrier signal sources. This frees up the WiFi for its essential role in patient satisfaction and communication — which has never been more important.