Creating Wireless Networks in Healthcare Settings

Four Steps to Creating Secure and Effective Wireless Networks in Healthcare Settings

If you're responsible for designing or implementing wireless technology in a healthcare setting, whether that is a hospital, outpatient clinic, skilled nursing facility or somewhere else, it is important to approach the task in the right way.

Healthcare settings are unlike any other type of organization as their IT networks have to be flexible enough to accommodate various enterprise and even industrial grade technologies while remaining secure and compliant with strict healthcare policies.

Why wireless networks are becoming critical in healthcare

Wireless networks (or WLANs) are not a luxury, especially in major healthcare settings such as large hospitals. As anyone interested in the latest developments in healthcare will know, new medical devices and systems requiring wireless connectivity of one kind or another are being rolled out all the time.

These include:

  • Handheld mobile devices for taking vital signs, prescribing medications and other regular nursing tasks
  • Infusion pumps
  • Dialysis machines
  • Smart beds
  • Monitors (both hospital based and personal)
  • Wearables (e.g. VR headsets for remote collaboration)
  • Real-time location systems
  • IP-based and non-IP-based radio frequency devices

The list goes on and is likely to boom when the Internet of Things gets into full swing. Healthcare settings need to be ready to scale when this happens which means getting the right wireless systems in place now.

Such systems also need to be versatile in terms of the protocols it can cope with. Wireless protocols often used within healthcare settings include:

  • Bluetooth
  • Cellular
  • RFID
  • Telemetry
  • UWB
  • Wi-Fi

The following four steps will present a basic framework which healthcare IT managers can follow to ensure their wireless network is fit for purpose.

Related read: Healthcare Future: Integrating Medical Devices with Health Apps

Brush up on the standards and best practice guidelines

The first step is to read through and implement all of the relevant industry standards.

These include:

  • The Bicsi standard, ANSI/BICSI 004-2012 (IT Systems Design and Implementation Best Practices for Healthcare Institutions and Facilities).
  • The TIA standard, ANSI/TIA-1179-A (Healthcare Facility Telecommunications Infrastructure). This includes new standards regarding wireless access points and distributed antenna systems.
  • The wireless specific ANSI/BICSI 006-2015 (Distributed Antenna System Design and Implementation Best Practices).
  • The Guide to Medical Grade Wireless Utility (GMGWU).

The GMGWU splits healthcare wireless connectivity into four systems:

  • A layered WLAN broadband architecture for internal wireless connectivity.
  • A physical WWAN network to facilitate cellphone, pager and radio connections. This would cover both internal and external connections.
  • WCDN (Wireless Clinical Data Network). A logical network which uses the physical assets of WLAN for transmitting the most important medical grade and life-critical data.
  • LLAN (Location LAN). A logical network which uses the assets of other networks to locate people and resources within the facility grounds.

The guide is very useful as it deals with various challenges in design, implementation and testing.

Carry out a comprehensive audit

An important part of any IT upgrade is assessing the current infrastructure and data flow. This is often a complex procedure in healthcare settings due to the large number of different systems and various types of data.

Examples of the systems that will need to form part of an audit, include:

  • Any existing Wi-Fi provision
  • Phone network
  • Security systems
  • Building support
  • Data record archiving and retrieval
  • Specialized systems (e.g. nurse call systems)
  • Interactive TV
  • Medical imaging systems

A data audit will identify what form the data takes, where it enters the healthcare network, where it goes, if and how it is transformed and where it is sent and stored.

The audit should be carried out with reference to the standards mentioned above and to both general and health-specific security and data protection regulations.

An audit should also cover any physical security precautions, data security policies and training programs that are currently in place as these may need to be changed or extended to cover a new wireless network.

Keep in touch with current developments

Given the pace of technical development within the healthcare industry, it is almost certain that exciting new wireless-enabled technologies will hit the market before your system is up and running.

Some of the latest technologies that are being brought into healthcare settings (some of which may need wireless connectivity) are building automation systems (BAS), electronic health records, pharmaceutical inventory systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning, nanotechnology, blockchain technology and robotics.

You may also be required to integrate your system with the cloud as a hybrid network due to the cost savings and increased ability to scale.

The more in touch you are with the latest technology, the easier it will be for you to adapt the system to be as compatible and future-proof as possible.

Standards are also constantly being revised while industry regulations can also change (e.g. the GDPR in Europe had global implications for IT governance when it was rolled out in May 2018). Again, staying in the loop can make all the difference between a tweak in system design and the need for a complete overhaul.

Related read: The Future of Health: Innovative Trends in Medical Software Development 2019

Set up robust support and training

Even the most expertly deployed wireless network needs to be constantly monitored to ensure it is performing at optimal efficiency and is safe from cyber-attacks. Whether you will be using an in-house IT support team or outsourcing to a provider of managed IT services, those responsible for securing your network need to have the skills, experience and tools to do their job.

Human error is the biggest cause of cyber security breaches, so wireless network deployment needs to go hand-in-hand with a robust and ongoing training program. All staff should be kept up to date on the latest security best practice including how to create strong passwords, how to recognize and avoid interacting with phishing emails and how to use their personal or company-supplied mobile devices in a secure and compliant manner.

By sticking to the above framework, healthcare IT managers can ensure their new wireless systems are secure, scalable and future-proof, ready to facilitate the next wave of exciting medical tech.

This is a guest post by Brent Whitfield. Brent is the CEO of DCG Technical Solutions Inc. DCG provides the specialist advice and IT Services Los Angeles area businesses need to remain competitive and productive, while being sensitive to limited IT budgets. Brent has been featured in Fast Company, CNBC, Network Computing, Reuters, and Yahoo Business. He also leads SMBTN - Los Angeles, a MSP peer group that focuses on continuing education for MSP's and IT professionals. DCG was recognized among the Top 10 Fastest Growing MSPs in North America by MSP mentor. Twitter: @DCGCloud