Legacy WiFi Infrastructure May Not Support IoT Demands in Healthcare

IoT-enabled medical devices have the potential to revolutionize healthcare, but these sophisticated endpoints won’t can’t change medicine if there isn’t a robust networking WiFi infrastructure supporting it.

From blood pressure meters and ventilators to heart rate monitors and medication adherence systems, Internet of Things (IoT) devices are already improving the efficiency of services delivered by healthcare providers (HCPs). According to a study published in Healthcare Informatics Research, by 2020, 40% of all IoT devices will be health-related, amounting to a $117 billion market.

That encouraging progress aside, however, increasingly widespread IoT adoption has created a number of IT challenges for hospitals and other high-volume HCPs. Foremost among those challenges is meeting the substantial bandwidth demands of connected, mission-critical devices. It’s not usual for a 300-square-foot hospital room to have between 15 and 20 connected pieces of equipment, making for incredibly high-density network demand areas throughout a facility. All told, a large hospital’s wireless networks must be able to support as many as 30,000 computers, tablets, and smartphones, along with up to 85,000 medical IoT devices.

Unfortunately, many hospital networks are incapable of handling the demands of digital-first healthcare. Poor connectivity will impede the delivery of quality care, but as Lorien Health Services Network Engineer Michael Bowman puts it, when the stakes are literally life and death, “caregivers have more important things to worry about than the WiFi network.”In order to avoid critical network failures and ensure that their organization’s WiFi is able to support a growing number of IoT devices, healthcare IT teams must take steps to upgrade or optimize their WiFi infrastructure.

A Better Wireless Standard

In healthcare settings and elsewhere, better WiFi connectivity depends first and foremost on having up-to-date equipment. In early 2014, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) officially approved the 802.11ac WiFi standard —also commonly referred to as wireless-AC, 802.11ac rivals the performance of wired connections. It more than doubles the bandwidth of older standards, enabling more data to pass through a connection at any given moment. Further, this increased bandwidth can be utilized by multiple devices at once.

How to Make Strategic WiFi Infrastructure Upgrades

While this standard is a few years old now, it still presents serious obstacles to organization that don’t regularly update their IT infrastructure. 802.11ac access points are backwards-compatible — meaning older devices have no problem connecting to networks using the new standard — but only devices manufactured after January 2014 are able to take full advantage of these upgraded WiFi capabilities. And even these devices may be rendered obsolete by the standard set to be implemented within the next year, 802.11ax.

Especially in places like hospitals, critical pieces of equipment often cost tens of thousands of dollars and last for many years, meaning it’s not always wise to haphazardly install wireless-AC access points across one’s entire medical facility. Instead, different clusters of access points should be configured and upgraded differently, ensuring that precious resources aren’t wasted on wireless-AC infrastructure that few devices will be able to use.

For instance, it might make sense to install wireless-AC access points in and around emergency rooms — where reliable connectivity is absolutely essential — but not in a cafeteria or guest waiting area. Similarly, non-critical patient rooms might not need 802.11ac connectivity, but if the rooms are tightly clustered or plagued by excessive radio frequency interference, upgrading their access points might be the right call.

Making these determinations on one’s own can be overwhelming, especially if HCP administrators aren’t intimately familiar with the meeting developing WiFi standards. That’s why HCPs should partner with a networking expert like Turn-key Technologies. With over two decades of experience optimizing healthcare networks, we’re capable of helping any medical facility assess where their WiFi infrastructure stands, how IoT adoption is putting pressure on their networks, and what their plans for the future should look like.

By Robert Elgart

December 14, 2017

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