WLAN Woes: Why Wi-Fi Fails in Hospitals

WLAN Woes: Why Wi-Fi Fails in Hospitals

The 8 biggest obstacles to reliable network performance in medical facilities

Wi-Fi failures are annoying to any business – but in a hospital setting, they can be catastrophic. Even an interruption of a second can impact the quality of patient care and spark life-threatening situations.

Hospitals have come a long way in supporting the exploding number of devices trying to access their WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks). But there are a number of persistent problems that still cause major issues.

And as wireless medical devices become even more essential to hospital operations – and the clinical Internet of Things (IoT) devices become commonplace – hospital administrators are scrambling to find a way to ensure the reliable Wi-Fi performance that’s needed for critical communications.

At the same time, a hospital’s WLAN also must be able to seamlessly support high levels of roaming from clinicians, patients, and guests carrying multiple devices. It must handle the security, regulatory, and other issues that accompany the popularity of BYOD policies as well.

Spotty Wi-Fi also impacts patient satisfaction and when satisfaction plummets, so does the hospital’s reputation and its ability to capitalize on market share and funding. In an era defined by high-deductible health plans and easy access to information, patients are increasingly shopping for health care services and not settling for anything less than the best overall experience.

They demand quality care and service, and they see poor connectivity – or even worse, outright denial of guest access – as a direct reflection on a hospital. In fact, Millennials point to quality Wi-Fi as one of the top two factors that influence their decision to return to a healthcare facility.

Understanding the reasons behind Wi-Fi challenges is the first step to avoiding them. Let’s take a look at eight of the most common culprits behind the spotty performance:

  1. Inadequate design. It seems like an obvious problem in retrospect, but most hospitals had no idea that they were setting themselves up for failure. To manage costs, many implemented their wireless strategy over time, with each step focusing on a specific application or area within the facility. Here’s the problem: these designs now contribute to a fragmented WLAN infrastructure.In other cases, the design of a legacy WLAN is simply not able to support current user demand and the technical requirements needed to accommodate a modern healthcare environment. A major source of the strain is the explosion of the IoT healthcare market, which is expected to reach $163.2 billion worldwide by 2020 – a 403 percent increase in five years.Many of these emerging devices have life-saving, communication, security, or environmental control capabilities that are valuable to healthcare environments. But even simple devices such as coffeemakers are beginning to rely on Internet connections to improve their functionality. It’s critical that hospitals plan for the future and ensure that their Wi-Fi networks are ready for the surging demand.
  2. Insufficient wireless access points. The setup of your access points is critical for ensuring maximum connectivity. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach – every situation is unique and requires custom solutions. A site survey and network assessment will help you uncover high density and bandwidth-greedy locations and reveal if you need to increase capacity or access points.
  3. Unpredictable density. Hospital wireless environments are more challenging because they are occupied around-the-clock, making capacity hard to gauge. Some areas are easy to plan – the waiting room has a maximum capacity, for instance – but many areas are unpredictable and make managing the network difficult.Not only does this fluctuating density make it harder to locate and troubleshoot Wi-Fi issues, but it can be difficult to physically fix a problem. It’s no simple task to manage an access point that sits in the middle of a bustling hallway.For this reason, designing for max capacity is more important in hospitals than perhaps any other setting. It’s the only way to ensure that no matter what’s occurring, your employees, patients, and guests have access to reliable, secure Wi-Fi.
  4. Challenging physical environment. The unique physical elements that comprise hospitals also create an exceptionally unfriendly environment for Wi-Fi. Many of the materials used in hospital construction like concrete and masonry are extremely dense and block radio-frequency signals.Further complicating matters is the large number of metal objects that continuously move throughout these facilities, generating high levels of interference. The constant introduction of new medical Wi-Fi devices and equipment impacts the wireless network as well, as they compete for space on the same spectrum.
  5. There’s just so many devices. The sheer number of wireless devices competing for access at all times is also unique to hospital environments. Vast numbers of mission-critical medical devices now jostle for limited bandwidth with tablets, smartphones, and laptops that are mostly BYOD – making them even harder to support and secure. Many hospitals struggle to scale their WLANs effectively to meet this soaring demand.HIT Infrastructure estimates that a large hospital now relies on about 85,000 connected devices in addition to its standard computer system.Managing all these devices and ensuring that they are properly connecting is a major challenge. Potential problems also loom from hardware and device updates, which can make it difficult to access legacy networks. Wi-Fi network infrastructures are traditionally rendered obsolete by software updates and new device technologies within an average of four years – and once the technology is out-of-date, it can create all sorts of headaches.
  6. A wide variety of usage. Some tasks hog more bandwidth than others, and It’s important to understand what the various devices accessing your network are trying to do so you can adjust accordingly. You might assume guests are clogging your network by streaming Netflix in the waiting room, for instance, but it’s really your electronic health records system that’s the problem.A network assessment will offer insight into what devices are draining the greatest amount of bandwidth. Then you can take steps to ensure that you’re providing optimum network performance for all users and applications.
  7. Roaming. One of the greatest challenges to managing a hospital network is the need for roaming. Clinicians and patients often move quickly or continuously throughout a facility. This taxes your WLAN, which can struggle to achieve the seamless handoffs between access points necessary to avoid dropped calls or access.Jittery voice connections and overall poor voice quality due to bottlenecks and other WLAN throughput issues can also prevent doctors and staff from communicating effectively. Making sure you have the right number of access points in the right locations will improve roaming and reduce performance issues.
  8. Security and regulatory compliance. Security and regulatory compliance requirements can exacerbate WLAN challenges. It’s critical for hospitals to implement an integrated policy enforcement strategy to ensure that devices accessing the network meet HIPAA standards for protecting sensitive patient data.That means your hospital’s main wireless network must be encrypted to restrict outsider access to patient information. It’s also important to establish stringent requirements for the types of devices that can connect to hospital Wi-Fi. BYOD devices owned by employees can only access patient data on your network under specific circumstances – and only then if they are encrypted properly. Patients and guests using your guest network also must have strict limits on the types of information they can access.Nearly 90 percent of healthcare organizations were breached between 2014 and 2016 – with an average cost of $2.2 million, Hospitals can’t afford to let network issues threaten the security of sensitive data.

The high volume of people who set foot in hospitals daily can’t be avoided, and that translates into a large number of devices that can quickly overwhelm legacy Wi-Fi networks. But more than frustration is on the line when dropped transmissions impact the quality of patient care. Partnering with a top-rated Wi-Fi performance management company can solve your Wi-Fi challenges and ensure the uninterrupted network performance that’s critical to hospital environments.

7SIGNAL® is a leader in enterprise Wireless Network Monitoring. The 7SIGNAL platform is a cloud-based Wireless Network Monitoring (WNM) solution that continuously troubleshoots the wireless network for performance issues – maximizing network uptime, device connectivity, and network ROI. The platform was designed for the world’s most innovative organizations, educational institutions, hospitals, and government agencies and is currently deployed at Booz Allen Hamilton, IBM, Kaiser Permanente, Walgreens, Microsoft and many others. 7SIGNAL continuously monitors the connectivity of over 4 million global devices. Learn more at www.7signal.com.