When Wireless Technology Meets Healthcare, House Happens

March 27, 2013 – 7:01 am

Bill Quatier, Welch Allyn

Healthcare facilities pour a tremendous amount of time and resources into building up their wireless infrastructure. A lot of money is spent making sure the network is sufficiently secure to preserve the integrity of medical data and safeguard patient privacy, and robust enough to reliably move that data around, says Bill Quatier, Global Solutions Manager, Wireless Technology, at Welch Allyn. “And with all of that, can you guess the three largest applications running on the wireless network of one hospital I visited the other day? Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. They are spending all of this money on bandwidth, and it mostly gets used to watch House,” says Quatier. He’s not being judgmental—in fact, hospitals need to deliver patient satisfaction in more ways than one—but it is a reality check.

I spoke with Quatier in advance of a conference on wireless connectivity in medical devices that will be held in Munich on 21 and 22 May 2013, where he is scheduled to speak. We spent a fair amount of time talking about the pain points of wireless technology in healthcare settings. Much of his work at Welch Allyn is focused on pain avoidance by making sure that the wireless devices his company places in hospitals operate seamlessly and reliably. Nevertheless, there is plenty of frustration, and it’s not just about the viewing habits of hospital patients and staff. Just talk to IT departments at healthcare facilities, and you will get an earful.

“An enormous frustration the healthcare IT staff has is the technology lag in medical devices compared with consumer devices” says Quatier. Samsung has launched the Galaxy S4 with 802.11ac, a wireless computing network standard that is currently under development, which has IT folks hyperventilating. Much to their chagrin, things move a little slower in healthcare’s wireless world. Ironically, hospital IT departments that continue to support antediluvian 802.11 equipment encourage the slow rate of change.

Vital signs monitors, infusion pumps lead march to wireless

“I don’t know of a medical device on the market today that even has an 802.11n radio [the precursor to 802.11ac],” says Quatier.  In fact, plenty of devices using the oldest and slowest 802.11 technology are deployed in hospitals today. “Some are still in development for healthcare applications,” he says, but not at Welch Allyn, he hastens to add.

While the pace of evolution may be slow in terms of technology adoption, wireless connectivity in general is growing by leaps and bounds in the healthcare sector. Two families of devices, in particular, are spurring growth: vital signs monitors and infusion pumps.

“You will see a lot of electronic vital signs monitors in healthcare settings,” notes Quatier, “but they don’t always have good end-to-end functionality.” It’s not uncommon to see healthcare workers gather data electronically and then enter it manually on a chart, he explains. “With a wireless device, you simply press the save button, and you’re done. That is one area where we see a proliferation of wireless technology,” says Quatier. The other is infusion pumps, where wireless technology optimises the use of drug libraries that assist healthcare providers in calculating drug dosage and delivery rates. “When we try to get the attention of IT departments at hospitals, they are always telling us either that they can’t get to our project until they finish their pump project or that they need to wrap up our project quickly because a pump project is coming up,” says Quatier.

Making sure that those projects have satisfactory outcomes is a big part of Quatier’s job. In addition to engaging with customers and being a sounding board for their requirements (and sometimes their frustrations), he spends a good amount of time ensuring that tests and validations performed at the Welch Allyn labs identify and eliminate trouble spots before the devices are connected with a hospital’s wireless network. Identifying the appropriate tests and anticipating and solving potential connectivity bugs is part of his day-to-day professional life, and will be a core topic at the conference. Quatier notably will speak to the potential impact of other devices in the healthcare environment and methods of preventing unexpected interference or loss of connectivity and will present an overview of testing methods to ensure that the devices will operate efficiently.

For more information about the conference and to register to attend, go to medicaldevices-wireless.com.

— Norbert Sparrow

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