Addressing medical facilities’ connectivity challenges

By Slavko Djukic

The acceleration of the Internet of Things (IoT) has brought us a world in which everything is connected to everything else and data becomes as available as oxygen—and as necessary.

Industries of all kinds, including healthcare, will reap the benefits of IoT. The various connected devices that comprise the IoT are making the entire industry more mobile, changing and improving the ways healthcare facilities deliver care to their customers; how customers participate in their own healthcare; and how healthcare providers work inside a hospital or healthcare facility.

In a connected environment, hospitals can operate more efficiently by being able to wirelessly track medical devices and ensure they are placed where they are needed most, reducing the amount of time spent on processes and tasks that are done manually. And HTM professionals will soon be integrating the technologies, devices, and tools they currently manage and use into the wider network to ensure everything is connected.

This type of interconnectivity is poised to change the face of healthcare—but the capabilities of IoT are not possible without reliable cellular signals within the hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Healthcare’s Connectivity Challenges

Hospitals are notoriously unfriendly environments for wireless devices. The wireless signals that come from the many life-saving medical systems housed inside create a lot of interference; in addition, hospitals tend to have walls that are denser than other buildings, making it more difficult for the cellular or Wi-Fi signals from cell towers or wireless networks to reach all parts of the facility.

If the cellular signals inside the building are spotty, all of those connected medical devices, systems, and sensors are for naught. Not only does that mean a healthcare facility cannot truly maximize the IoT’s capabilities; it also means patient health and safety are compromised.

Any facility that wants to get serious about incorporating IoT into its current and future offerings—and ensure reliable connectivity and patient safety—will need a powerful in-building wireless network that works both now and in the future. One option many healthcare facilities are considering: a distributed antenna system (DAS).

Full-Spectrum DAS: Enabling IoT in Healthcare

DAS comprises cabling, small remote units, and antennas that are distributed throughout a building and linked to a central distribution hub. This hub, in turn, connects to the radiofrequency source used by the mobile operators. Through a DAS, the operators’ wireless signal is distributed to all parts of the building.

The optimal DAS solution can help alleviate many in-building connectivity challenges, solving the healthcare industry’s current needs as well as positioning it to take advantage of the technologies of tomorrow.

There are several key components of an IoT-ready DAS platform.

  • The network should facilitate the current ways patients and medical professionals prefer to communicate.
  • It should be carrier-agnostic and able to access all of the most utilized cellular and public safety signals, as well as all of the frequencies available between 150 MHz to 2700 MHz, on a single hardware layer, rather than have a solution that only supports a single set of frequencies, which will need additional hardware and installation for future needs.
  • It should support simple, inexpensive upgrades to meet patients’ and medical professionals’ future connectivity and communication requirements.
  • Installation should be simple, with a minimum amount of hardware needed, to keep installation time and costs down.
  • It should be fully fiber-based, instead of coaxial cable-based or a hybrid of cable and fiber, to ensure optimal performance, as well as lower costs and minimize installation time. Also, fiber optics should be used throughout—from the head end to the antenna. After all, installation of such all-fiber systems is easier, costs less than those that primarily use coaxial cables, and is less disruptive to a facility’s daily operations.
  • Finally, it should support emerging technologies like IoT, as well as machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and 5G cellular—all of which need stable and reliable cellular connectivity.

The Healthcare Industry of the Future

IoT and mobile technologies have made deep inroads into the healthcare industry. The mobile health (mHealth) market, driven by IoT, is expected to explode, growing from $11.47 billion in 2014 to $102.43 billion by 2022, with a growth rate of 32.5% each year between 2016 and 2022.

Further, the way HTM professionals think about connectivity is changing, because wireless networks will affect the technologies and devices they manage—and, as healthcare IoT expands, this will be true to an even greater degree. Hospitals and healthcare facilities, like other businesses, need an infrastructure that is ready to support technologies that are still on the horizon, including IoT, 5G, and M2M.

Specifically, the devices that are used to communicate in a building are changing rapidly, and as more “things” connect to the Internet, a solution that is ready to bring them onto the network and into the building is required—something legacy Wi-Fi or older wireless systems cannot do.

Reliable cellular connectivity in hospitals is no longer a nice thing to have; it is a necessity, and is now critical to how healthcare is provided, how patients pay for it and the costs involved in its delivery. As in other industries, a robust cellular signal means more efficient operations and better access to the massive amounts of important data being generated every day. However, in a hospital, it’s about much more than just data—it’s potentially life and death. Medical systems need to stay connected, and patient data must be available and secure—because patients’ lives depend on it.

In conclusion, IoT needs a strong backbone: a robust, reliable in-building network that can take on not just the challenges of IoT, but also anything the future may hold. That’s why IoT powered by a reliable DAS solution has the power to transform the industry, helping medical professionals save more lives and expedite care.

Slavko Djukic is CTO for Dallas-based Zinwave.