Toronto hospital deploys wireless VoIP

Nurses, like network managers, often bear the brunt of the blame in the organization when situations go awry. But now network managers at the Toronto General Hospital (TGH) have come up with a solution to make nursing a little bit easier.

In August, the TGH implemented a wireless voice-over-IP (VoIP) network integrated into the nurse call system to help the nurses communicate better with their patients and colleagues.

Normally, hospital clerks contact nurses through an internal call system, which connects to pagers and a public address system in the institution. Buttons on the console let clerks tell nurses when operating rooms (ORs) are available, or when a patient is ready for pickup after surgery.

“We wanted something real time, not only getting a hold of the caregiver, but we wanted to get good information to that nurse in a timely fashion,” said Dave Eagan, architect for infrastructure development at the University Health Network (UHN) – a collection of teaching and research hospitals that includes TGH, Toronto Western Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital.

With the new wireless VoIP system at TGH, when a patient calls for help, the nurse is notified on a specialized handset – the 802.11 NetLink wireless telephone by SpectraLink Corp. – via a text message, telling the health care professional which patient requires aid. The NetLink units also behave like traditional phones, so nurses can receive calls. A caller only needs to dial the nurse’s extension instead of performing a time-consuming page.

Nurses can also set the phone to vibrate rather than beep, or set it to work like a walkie-talkie, where messages would be relayed verbally instead of through IM, or making a call.

So far the UHN has deployed wireless VoIP in the ORs and in-patient areas in the newest building on TGH’s campus. Eagan said the rest of the UHN will receive wireless VoIP over the next two and a half years. Right now there are 150 NetLink phones being used at TGH.

“Our wireless phones are used a lot in [hospitals] because you have a very mobile workforce,” said Ben Guderian, director of marketing at SpectraLink in Boulder, Colo.

Guderian said SpectraLink’s NetLink phones can connect either to traditional PBXs or IP PBXs. The phones weigh about 170 grams, have larger earpieces than traditional mobile phones, and are more durable in case they are dropped. Eagan said the nurses at the hospital subjected the phones to a three-foot drop test and the phones survived.

Eagan said the most challenging aspect of the deployment was dealing with five vendors for one solution.

While SpectraLink provided the handsets, Toronto’s GlobeStar Systems Inc. provided its ConnexALL software for text messaging, which integrates with Rauland-Borg Corp.’s Rauland Responder 4000 nurse call system. TGH is using Cisco Systems Inc.’s Aironet wireless access points, and antennas from L.Comm Inc. to evenly distribute the signal, while Bell Canada is the service provider.

As security remains a big concern with wireless, Eagan said the network is protected by a variety of encryption methods, and the hospital is looking to buy a campus security solution. The network can detect if an unauthorized device is attempting to link up to it.

Another wireless VoIP deployment suggests the technology is gaining momentum. In August, Netcetera Consulting Inc. and 3Com Corp. took to the beaches of Vancouver to demonstrate a wireless VoIP network.

Using Wi-Fi networking technology and 3Com’s NBX 100 Communications System, the companies created a secure voice and data connection on the sand at St. Kits beach in Vancouver, 3Com said.

Netcetera, a Vancouver-based IT services firm, linked a broadband Internet connection to a wireless access point from SonicWall Inc. and the 3Com NBX. The voice packets travelled 1.5 kilometres over a VPN. SonicWall provided wireless IP encryption to maintain network security.