A WiFi vision for healthcare

Cost, security and reliability are three vital concerns for healthcare organizations implementing a wireless infrastructure.

They were also three of the most eagerly discussed issues at an Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) forum examining the use of Wi-Fi in Toronto on Tuesday.

The roundtable discussion featured candid comments from CIOs, CTOs, and IT directors of hospitals around the Greater Toronto Area involved directly with Wi-Fi implementations.

For Peter Catford, the biggest challenge in wireless infrastructure implementations is cost. Catford is vice-president of information management and CIO for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

“I have a meagre amount [to invest] in technology,” he said. “I am getting tremendous pressure…to be in the 50th percentile of cost [for IT spending]. To get myself to a $60 million budget, I have to cut $4 million. How do I do that?” Catford believes the most efficient way is to outsource the project and rely on an external vendors’ knowledge and expertise.

Linda Weaver, chief technology officer, Smart Systems for Health Agency had a slightly different take on the cost question. “It is the triangle: good, fast, cheap; pick two,” she said.

Weaver has her own set of challenges. Her organization – SSHA – has the daunting responsibility of connecting 20,000 sites across Ontario onto a common network. Those sites include hospitals, doctors offices, pharmacies and long-term care facilities.

“We have huge connectivity problems related to IP addressing, network address translations, firewalls, and conflicting VPN clients,” Weaver said, adding that she hopes within the next year to draw the healthcare sector together to find a common solution for healthcare connectivity.

If Weaver gets the connectivity between sites, network security is another challenge she has to grapple with “As people become more mobile, there is the issue of virtual identification and authentication and what people should get access to,” she said.

The panelists have seen an enormous demand for wireless technology in the clinical setting. Most hospitals represented at the event had implemented some wireless technology such as PDAs and computers on wheels to handle tasks such as electronic record taking. Most discussed the reliability of such devices and how they can ensure they get the comprehensive coverage they require.

As well, panelists agreed devices such as RIM’s Blackberry should only contain necessary applications, and no data should remain on the devices. Participants felt mobilility was important — in order to take the technology outside of the hospital walls and into the home care or community environment but want to be sure the security aspect is there to make it a reality.

Where do these organizations hope to see Wi-Fi being used in the future?

Everyone present agreed that cost-efficiency was one of the most important pre-requisites in WiFi implementations.

“[Wireless] has come a long way and it is going to mature a lot. It is not about technology, it is about users. I think this is where we need to focus. You are dealing with people but have less money to do it,” said Rejean Loisel, manager, technical services, Lakeridge Health Corporation in the Durham region of Ontario.

Catford’s goal is for his organization to be completely wireless in ten years’ time so most of his staff can be mobile instead of being tied to a wired world. “We are going to run out of copper but we are never going to run out of electrons and air.”