Performance has been the issue for Ash Shehata, director of information systems and telecommunications at Antelope Valley Hospital, north of Los Angeles. Shehata has been looking at wireless since 1997. Until recently, the technology was too immature. However, the hospital has decided it's time to consider wireless to solve the thorny problem of bedside computing, which involves providing doctors and nurses with the ability to access and update medical records at the "point of care." But building codes limit the hospital's ability to punch holes for wiring, and the rapid growth of stationary PCs at nursing stations and the like meant added costs the hospital would rather avoid. Says Shehata: "We were unwilling to spend on tethered networks. It's easy to buy computers, but the wiring in our organization is almost like you have to have a Ph.D." Worse, says Shehata, federal regulations require hospitals like Antelope Valley to file for permits every time they want to add wired networking connections, adding permit fees to the already high cost of wiring.
Meanwhile, the hospital already runs a host of wireless devices on any number of radio frequencies, and introducing a new wireless connection into that potential morass could mean conflicts with lifesaving equipment. Even doctors' pagers could be a problem. And the concrete construction typical of hospitals can cause unpredictable "dead zones" that can hamper communication at crucial points.
So Shehata brought in radio frequency engineers to consult on the layout of the hospital's seven buildings. The consulting team mapped out the optimum number of wireless access points, where they'd have to overlap, and how many wireless devices could talk to each access point without sacrificing performance. Then Shehata's IT team asked all the medical-device companies from whom the hospital already buys wireless equipment to certify in writing the radio frequencies on which each product operates, to ensure no device would mangle Wi-Fi communications. The result was a network design with 80 access points, so that every wireless device on the network would have at least 90 percent of maximum signal strength. Total installation time: two weeks.
Shehata says the hospital is just finishing up the pilot phase of the project, having tested 150 devices, 50 of them Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC handheld computers. Full rollout will begin this summer, with the goal to connect about 1,000 devices by the end of the year, on a network designed to support up to 5,000. "Now, a physician can walk into our organization and not have to go to a specific department" for certain computing services, says Shehata. "They'll have everything in every unit."
And the return on investment? According to Shehata, the wireless network has already reduced overall desktop costs at nursing and other stations by 35 percent, and healthcare professional productivity has increased by 25 percent. Shehata says that the project has reached 95 percent of its ROI goals, and expects to reach the remaining 5 percent by the end of June, when the pilot will be complete. "We think we're going to beat our original projections," he says.