Making Wireless Work for Your Medical Practice

August 17, 2016

Wireless networking is a great fit for a medical practice. But, before you go live, you should think about security and reliability issues first.

Wireless networking is a great fit for healthcare, with providers moving from room to room and portable devices like tablets and laptops always connected. Most of us are so used to having our cellphones at hand that wireless connections for our other devices seem like a given. Indeed, wireless has become so common that we don't even think about it, until we have to.

Wireless networking - via Wi-Fi - offers both benefits and challenges for a medical practice. Obviously, freedom of movement is a huge benefit, as is not having to install network wiring in the walls throughout your office. A well-designed Wi-Fi network can work reliably and with enough speed for almost all uses. Still, with data literally beaming through the air, security is an obvious concern. Reliability is also vital - as anyone who has ever experienced a dropped connection or a failure to connect to a wireless network can easily attest. Speed is important: even a "few seconds" of waiting here and there means ongoing frustration and loss of productivity. And even within a small medical office, there may be "dead spots" where Wi-Fi just doesn't work.

The good news is that Wi-Fi technology and devices have evolved rapidly to address many of these concerns. Wi-Fi security has improved, a good thing since Wi-Fi's old-school Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security can be broken into in seconds. Reliability has also improved, although this is always a function of the wireless network itself, the devices connecting to it, and the environment. Improving wireless networks' performance has been a constant challenge, with each new Wi-Fi protocol both increasing its theoretical speed and advancing the ability to better support multiple users. The flip side is that these changes will mostly benefit those with the latest and greatest devices. A shiny new 802.11ac network will connect to an older tablet or laptop - but only at the slower speeds the old device supports.

Like most other issues with technology, troubleshooting wireless can quickly immerse you in a sea of acronyms and jargon. But I'll just focus on the most important one. The basic technical standard for Wi-Fi is 802.11, with its many versions identified by the letters following it. The oldest Wi-Fi devices used the 802.11b protocol, which supports a maximum theoretical speed of 22 megabits per second. After the "b" devices, speed increased with the introduction of 802.11g and, later, 802.11n. However today's reigning champ returns to the beginning of the alphabet with 802.11ac, with theoretical maximum speeds of over 1 gigabit per second. "Theoretical maximum speed" is always applicable since real life Wi-Fi speed depends on several factors - you shouldn't be surprised if the actual speed is half of the theoretical maximum.

How can you ensure that Wi-Fi will work for your practice? Here are some basic tips:

• Plan ahead. For small offices a formal "site survey" at a cost of several hundred dollars or more may seem excessive, but even an informal site survey can pay big dividends by identifying potential sources of interference (e.g., microwave ovens, other nearby wireless networks, etc.)

• Choose wisely. New devices should support 802.11ac, and if you have older devices you may be able to add an external USB 802.11ac wireless card. 802.11ac is also designed to support multiple individual users simultaneously, rather than the old Wi-Fi method of just quickly switching back and forth between users.

• Avoid interference. In medical office buildings you may find a dozen or more wireless networks competing with your own. The vast majority of these currently use the channels at 2.4 GHz. 802.11ac supports the 5 GHz band, which will likely be much less crowded, giving you more available bandwidth. You also have the choice of several channels, and you should definitely choose the least-used channels in either band.

• Add access points. Even the smallest office may not be able to achieve wireless coverage with a single wireless router or access point.  In addition to the interference already mentioned, architectural features like elevators shafts can block Wi-Fi signals.

• Manage wireless use. The total available bandwidth in Wi-Fi networks is shared by all users. Streaming video or music uses large amounts of the available bandwidth and can slow others users to a crawl.

• Test it. Before relying on your wireless network, you should test it by following your work flow with the devices your staff would use. Remember that if you only test on nights or weekends, there's likely to be a lot less interference than you will experience during operating hours.

• Be flexible. You may find particular devices or locations in your office which will constantly have problems with wireless networking. Disruption of staff and providers carries a high cost, so if all else fails, be willing to use wired networking there.

Once you're up and running SOLICIT feedback from providers and staff - and listen to it.

In most locations you will be able to have a Wi-Fi network that is reliable, fast enough to not slow you down, and the freedom to move throughout the office. With some planning and experimentation, once you've solved any problems, you will likely use Wi-Fi without much thought. Just like it should be.