Making the most of hospital Wi-Fi

UK hospital trusts in the NHS have been wary of investing in new technology, partly thanks to the costly debacle over the NHS IT project to introduce electronic patient healthcare records.

However, NHS Trusts are increasingly seeing the benefits of deploying Wi-Fi networks in their hospitals for clinical purposes where they can see that it improves efficiency, saves money and can boost successful patient outcomes.

But as with many other sectors, the NHS is acknowledging that its patients and visitors now expect to be able to make cellular phone calls and access data on their mobile devices 24/7 too.

Matt O’Donovan, CEO at Exeter-based WiFi SPARK, says: ‘We have a lot of experience of Wi-Fi in the NHS and we are noticing quite a change, not just in terms of the technology, but in attitudes towards it too.’

Secure wireless

WiFi SPARK specialises in providing secure wireless or wired internet access across a number of sectors including healthcare. To date it has deployed wired and Wi-Fi networking solutions in more than 65 UK healthcare locations. The company does install Wi-Fi hardware where necessary, but in the majority of cases it integrates its offerings with existing Wi-Fi networks.

Its solutions range from a ‘HotSpot in a Box’ to massive municipal deployments, and all are based on the SPARK software platform and gateway that controls the network and which is capable of supporting tens of thousands of simultaneous users. It is also highly customisable, so it can be tailored to meet the exact requirements of any particular NHS Trust.

‘We started selling systems into large carriers, such as Deutsche Telekom, and then I saw an opportunity to provide Wi-Fi authentication and subscriber management services to markets such as marinas, outdoor leisure facilities and hotels,’ recalls O’Donovan.

‘I was going to buy a platform and sell it, but I couldn’t find one so we built our own. After a few years we moved into the NHS market,’ says O’Donovan. ‘We now have a strong position in the NHS for guest management with about 50% of acute hospitals using us for authentication and guest management services.’

King’s College Hospital in London was the catalyst for the move after it asked the company to provide wireless access for patients in cancer wards. The Trust already had a large Cisco Wi-Fi system in place, but it was only used for clinical purposes.

‘We contracted to put in 3Com access points (APs) using the standard ‘hotspot’ model,’ recalls O’Donovan. ‘King’s than asked us to install guest access all over the hospital after the success of the cancer ward deployment. They already had 1,500 APs in places, so we could piggyback on that network, as long as we could do it securely.

‘So, we could see a change in attitude by NHS Trusts towards opening up their wireless network infrastructure for other applications such as guest access. But having done that we were unsure how the commercial model would work’ he says.

WiFi SPARK decided to install the infrastructure and SPARK platform for free and adopt a price per use model (at approximately 50% less than the then market rate) – and despite minimal marketing there was a fast adoption of the service.

The company has followed this model in many cases, with Trusts choosing to also offer Wi-Fi access for free for a limited period of time, with tiered packages available to buy at reasonable rates, giving choice to the patient and a source of revenue to the hospital.

Changing commercial models

However, he notes that WiFi SPARK is seeing a change to the prevalent commercial models. ‘People ask: why should we pay for hospital car parking? They are now starting to ask the same thing about Wi-Fi. So, some Trusts are now paying us for the service, but are no longer charging patients and visitors.’

Usually, WiFi SPARK will create a Trust branded user experience portal (UEP) that informs users of what is happening in their Trust. The UEP is effectively the first page that end users see when connecting to the Wi-Fi service. Patients can then access all their online resources from one location and the experience is intuitive and seamless.

However, the UEP also serves as a valuable means of tapping into patient opinion by using survey forms and questionnaires. ‘What we are seeing from Trusts is a move towards asking what other benefits they can get from having deployed a wireless network, such as pushing content and apps to patients, visitors and clinical staff,’ explains O’Donovan.

‘In one Trust, we provide video clips to patients and visitors on nursing staff uniforms, explaining what they mean and what they do. We can provide information on waiting times for services or facilities information on where cafés or pharmacies can be found.’

In short, Trusts are realising they have a great wireless network, but it is underused. They can use it for data collection, such as footfall, either collected on an anonymous basis or people can choose to opt in.

‘We tend to go for the latter,’ recommends O’Donovan, ‘as tracking people is quite a grey area in terms of personal privacy issues. The other major offering we can provide is streaming services for bedside content delivery, as that can be done over Wi-Fi.

‘The requirements are changing and so is what the end user expects. Wi-Fi in the home is now considered a utility and one that is expected. Why should people be denied that utility in a hospital? They’ve paid their subscription to Netflix and they want to be able to access it anywhere.’

Wireless infrastructure

Applications such as Netflix gobble up a lot of bandwidth, so Wi-Fi vendors need to be able to deliver larger amounts of content in high-density environments. An 800-bed hospital requires a fairly heavy wireless infrastructure and a large number of APs.

In turn, it is vitally important that network management providers, such as WiFi SPARK, offer full interoperability to allow a wide range of devices to log on to the wireless system.

‘In a private enterprise LAN you can control the limited types of device logging on, but you can’t do that for public Wi-Fi where you have to be able to support a myriad of consumer mobile devices, which are continually evolving,’ points out O’Donovan.

That means any device management offering has to provide 24/7 monitoring, compliance and device authentication. WiFi SPARK’s Network Management Platform monitors all key software processes and hardware installed at the hospital. If an alarm condition or fault is detected, the company is aware immediately and can take the appropriate action.

O’Donovan acknowledges that all of the Wi-Fi vendors have network management and guest access features, but he says what they don’t generally have is experience of managing live healthcare wireless systems.

‘The service wrapper we provide is vital,’ he insists, ‘especially the 24/7 helpdesk; you need the people for that and the experience of how to run things, which we have thanks to our strong technical, sales and support teams.’

For WiFI SPARK the future opportunities are centred more around service delivery such as bedside entertainment packages through IP-TV, where it can deliver content through smartphones, tablets or other bedside devices.

O’Donovan concludes: ‘We will continue to see high levels of adoption of our type of service not just for access but for information provision. The NHS now sees its wireless network as a two-way service, so there is a chance for new services to be added, such as data collection, upward CRM systems such as patient feedback forms, and bedside entertainment.’

Case Study: Making a Wi-Fi difference in Wales

Wales has been a particularly successful area for WiFi SPARK recently, with the rollout of the SPARK platform across a number of its Trusts.

Since last spring, WiFi SPARK has worked as the approved supplier to Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCULHB), delivering a tailored Wi-Fi service according to their specific requirements.

David K Slocombe, data communications manager at BCULHB, explains: ‘Prior to WiFi SPARK, BCULHB provided three different Wi-Fi solutions at the three main hospitals, and this was available only to BCU staff and undergraduate students within residential areas.

‘The service was not widely available to the public, although limited access was provided in certain hospital areas. A mixed offering saw Bangor Hospital provided with an in-house solution, which used a Microsoft IIS proxy server and wireless access points.

‘Glan Clwyd Hospital used a managed Internet service using DSL modem and DSLAM technology, while Wrexham Maelor Hospital was provided with a residential broadband solution using wireless access points to undergraduate student residential areas only. Three very different systems each with their own challenges.

‘We decided we needed a new Wi-Fi strategy that was cohesive, efficient and delivered real value for money,’ says Slocombe. ‘We wanted to ensure that BCULHB obtained the right service for its needs, at a competitive cost, and we were looking for full Wi-Fi support to all end users. Overall the service needed to be reliable, robust and cost effective in terms of administrative overhead, while delivering a good level of performance.

‘Following the tender process, BCULHB confidently chose to work with WiFi SPARK to deliver on the points above and since their support began, we have had an excellent and responsive level of service.’

Image Credit: Photo_Concepts  / iStock

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.