Updated: Jul 6
Wi-Fi is the most leveraged wireless technology in healthcare. Its use enables everything from mobile medical devices that help sustain and report on patient health, to staff communications, alert and alarm systems, and to guest networks deployed to improve quality-of-life and reduce stress for those receiving care. Wi-Fi is a mission-critical technology for healthcare facilities and hospitals, and the teams in charge of these networks know that continual management and optimisation can have an enormous impact on overall network performance.
Healthcare Wireless Network Design Best Practices
1. Gather Detailed Requirements
It’s important to gather detailed requirements including specific use cases, device types, and Wi-Fi cards that will be used on the network. It’s not unusual for a hospital Wi-Fi network to support Employee, Guest, BYOD, Voice, and Medical Device access—some of which with 10+ year expected lifespans.
2. Consider Capacity
Healthcare is a dynamic environment so design for capacity, keeping in mind that the system may be used for Real-Time Location Services. There should be very few access points that have a direct line of sight to each other with the majority installed inside patient rooms.
3. Design for 5GHz and Voice
Conduct the RF design for 5 GHz keeping in mind the typical requirement of -65dBm/-67dBm based on preference for voice. The 2.4 GHz radios can be disabled as needed if the density does not allow for a clean channel plan. Do not blindly rely on dynamic radio management. A static channel plan is much more stable and predictable.
4. Validate with an AP on a Stick Survey
Conduct an AP on a Stick site survey, taking real readings onsite with the access point intended for use and a standard wireless card. It’s not as important which device is used to capture the data as it is to ensure that the same Wi-Fi card model is used consistently. The survey tools can mimic the RSSI for other typical device types.
5. Steer End Users Away from 2.4 GHz
Steer end-users away from using 2.4 GHz, disable lower 802.11b data rates, and leverage channel bonding very carefully, if at all, in the 5 GHz space.
Healthcare Wi-Fi From Good to Great
There is no such thing as a stagnant, set it and forget it, design, and if there is one constant in a hospital, it’s change. Departments are constantly relocating and renovating and it’s not uncommon to run into lead-lined walls in locations that no longer require them. For healthcare Wi-Fi to evolve from good to great and to ensure that the original design continues to meet new coverage requirements, it’s important to perform regular RF validation surveys and to continuously manage and optimise your network.
Perform Ongoing Operational Maintenance
Ultimately, the Wi-Fi network is designed to meet specific business or departmental needs which change over time. From a capacity standpoint, areas designed for high density can transition to low-density storage areas and the clients in use can evolve to require higher demands. Patients watching Netflix on the guest network is a good example of a capacity requirement that may not have been part of the initial design requirements and supporting an EKG device is very different from an Ultrasound unit capturing and transmitting HD video. Keeping a regular line of communication open with the business can help ensure that the Wi-Fi network continues to meet their needs. Key considerations:
Understand capacity requirement changes
Conduct regular site surveys
Design for the most important, least capable client
Hire the Right Team of Wireless Experts
Wireless Engineers and Architects Wireless engineering and architecture requires a unique skill set that includes an understanding of RF and physics that is not a part of the traditional network engineering curriculum. It is important for Healthcare IT departments to staff a team and provide with access to the appropriate tools (like Ekahau) and training, or to work with a specialist partner who can support internal IT teams who don't have the in-house tools and/or technical expertise.
Specialist wireless partners will typically be connected with the larger community and aware of the latest IEEE standards, Wi-Fi Alliance, FDA, and FCC guidance as well as the nuances of the specific products deployed.
A key concept to keep in mind is that the Wi-Fi design is based on a series of static measurements captured over time, but RF is a very dynamic medium and its behaviour is heavily dependent on its surroundings. RF propagation in an empty room looks very different from one with 10 doctors and bulky medical mobile X-Ray units. The initial network design can be effective, but over time as the facility changes its efficacy can diminish.
A great Wi-Fi network is not only about a solid initial design but depends equally on ongoing maintenance, the appropriate toolsets/training, and having a competent staff managing the network. Wi-Fi does not abide by the “set it and forget it” mentality that often works well for wired networks. We design for the lowest common denominator with this in mind, but no one has a crystal ball to predict what is coming down the pipe in the next several years.
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