Wireless World: WiFi comes to hospitals

By GENE J. KOPROWSKI, United Press International  |  April 30, 2004 at 11:30 PM
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A weekly UPI series examining emerging wireless telecommunications technologies.


CHICAGO, April 30 (UPI) -- A nurse places a bracelet around the wrist of a newborn baby. It is emblazoned with the name of the baby's parents, as is traditional, but this one also contains an emerging hospital technology -- an imbedded radio frequency identification chip.

The RFID security precaution is designed to prevent the mix-up of children in the neonatal ward, as well as infant kidnapping.

"If someone leaves the room with the baby who is not authorized to do so, alarms go off," said Greg Richardson, national mobility practice director in the business services unit of Siemens AG in Atlanta, the multinational technology company.

From Scripps Health facilities in Southern California, to the Central DuPage Hospital in suburban Chicago, modern medicine is embracing wireless technology.

"If you look at healthcare, one of the things they are doing now is trying to use wireless for tracking patients and people," Richard Howe, vice president of VHA Inc. in Irving, Texas, a cooperative that serves more than 2,000 U.S. hospitals, told United Press International.

Hospitals have lagged corporate America in the use of wireless networking technologies, but the situation is changing, said Aaron Dobrinsky, chief executive officer of RoomlinX, a WiFi firm in Vancouver.

"There were lots of concerns about interference with medical equipment for cellular phones," Dobrinsky told UPI. "But the newer wireless networking technologies run on different frequencies than cellular phones."

Hospitals today are using wireless networking technology for an array of applications, from pharmacies to operating rooms, to WiFi-enabled lab tests, taken by technicians at a patient's bedside and relayed to a central database in the hospital.

"This is called point-of-care testing," said Steve Juett, director of clinical systems and planning at EQ International, a medical technology systems integrator in Dallas. "That enables efficiency. They're cutting footsteps out of the work day, and saving time and money on labor," Juett told UPI.

At Scripps Health, technology administrators are rolling out WiFi systems as part of planned new investments in medical technology projects.

"Like other healthcare institutions, we held off a little bit and let the market mature," Jean Balgrosky, Scripps Health's chief information officer, told UPI. The organization consists of five hospitals and 12 clinics and is spending several years adding wireless to its IT infrastructure, building it into a new clinical information system for the medical facilities, Balgrosky explained.

"We're doing one hospital at a time," she said. "We're getting some critical mass. More than half the system will soon be up and running."

The idea behind these wireless networks is to provide healthcare personnel -- be they doctors, nurses, or therapists -- real-time access to data.

One hospital client of Siemens is considering imbedding RFID chips in carts with surgical instruments or, possibly, on the instruments themselves.

"Right now, (keeping track) is a manual process," Richardson told UPI. "But sometimes, instruments get misplaced, and they have to search through 10 operating rooms to find what they are looking for. Wireless will help them reduce the risk and time spent finding the instruments."

Oher hospitals already are using WiFi networks to track expensive portable equipment, such as X-ray machines and ventilators, which often are moved from room to room and are needed quickly in emergencies.

"They're also using RFID technologies -- and wireless networks -- to track drugs in IV bags," Howe said. "The RFID chips can signal the nurse that it is time to change the IV. There used to be an issue with sending the wireless signals through fluids, but they've discovered a frequency that works."

Individual patients are being tracked with the wireless technologies, too, like those suffering from senile dementia. If a patient wanders too far from the psychiatric ward, he or she can be located through the network via an RFID bracelet.

"That's pretty cutting edge," Richardson commented.

Many hospitals also are using WiFi to regulate access technology -- to enable only authorized personnel with the proper RFID chip to enter certain wards or rooms.

Companies are eyeing emergency medical care as a possible major area of development for wireless infrastructure growth.

Anish Srivastava, director of wireless communications for the San Francisco lab of France Telecom R&D LLC, told UPI his researchers have been interviewing paramedics, asking them what wireless tools they would like to see to improve their jobs.

The researchers have found that paramedics -- using radios to communicate with nurses and doctors from the field -- often have to repeat the same information about the same patient four or five times. In addition to being time consuming, Srivastava said, such repetition might cost a life if a vital piece of information is omitted.

"They need a secure network where nurses or docs can have full access to all of the information," he said. "WiFi or another wireless technology could enable that."

In the coming years, experts expect most hospitals will be as wireless as the most tech-savvy Fortune 500 companies are today.

"Hospitals will be like corporate campuses, where wireless is becoming corporate-wide, rather than departmental," Dobrinsky said.

When that happens, look for the style of healthcare delivery to change.

One such change: Pharmacists will be more involved in day-to-day -- and hour-to-hour -- patient care. With patients connected to wireless networks, and their drugs tracked by bar-coding, pharmacists will be able to determine the proper dosage -- and exact time to administer -- each medication to a particular patient, Juett said.

"Pharmacies are getting some cool stuff," he said. "They can use technology to check that the right medication is given to the right patient at the right time. They can use RFID to imbed the prescription in the medicine bottle, or infusion device. That means they are no longer just hoping the medicine gets to the right place at the right time."


Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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