“Those things are so all consuming, in terms of time and resources and manpower, that wireless communication has been pushed into the background as a lower priority,” says Chris Wasden, managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' healthcare strategy and innovation practice. “There are a significant percentage of providers in the United States that do not have wireless access within their hospital.”
That decision has set many hospital systems far behind other industries and the ways in which they are using wireless. Wasden says pagers and fax machines still play important communications roles in many hospitals.
While it's not rare to find one or two hospitals in every state that have an established wireless infrastructure, “It is rare enough that it's still fairly advanced,” Walton says, speaking of his hospital's accomplishments.
El Camino, which opened in late 2009, is believed to have been the third hospital in California to build a medical-grade wireless utility.
“We decided that we wanted to have a very rich investment in wireless because we knew that over time that it would be stressed by more and more demands,” Walton says. “In hindsight, that's been exactly the case.”
Now, everything from the clinician communications system and the electronic patient beds to the tablet computers used by physicians employ the hospital's wireless utility. The hospital has even installed an access point in each elevator car, which allows wireless robots to move floor to floor and patients to be monitored as they move around the hospital.
In addition, the Tug robots that deliver medication, food and laundry throughout the hospital; the fountains located on the hospital's Mountain View campus; and the emergency systems, mobile phones, and the medical grade telemetry system for patient monitoring all rely on the wireless network.
Next on the list is wireless administration of medication at the bedside and voice-recorded discharge instructions.
“A long time ago, we passed a threshold where if we were to lose our network for a long period of time, our patients would be at risk,” Walton says.
The hospital has not reported a single failure of the network since the wireless utility was deployed in 2009, according to Ken King, El Camino's chief administrative services officer. The network is “fully redundant” and the backup is built into the system, Walton adds.
The distributed antenna system cost roughly $2.5 million and was part of about $70 million that El Camino spent on new technology for the new facility, which is marketed as “the hospital of Silicon Valley.”
“Financially, we have been very fortunate but we're not immune to the pressures that everybody has,” Walton says. “The organizations that were ahead a long time ago have an advantage as the race continues.”
Unlike the wireless infrastructure that was built from the ground up at the main El Camino hospital, Walton says the hospital will have to retrofit its Los Gatos campus, a facility previously operated by Tenet Healthcare Corp. that El Camino acquired in 2008. Discussions about the retrofit project, which is usually more costly, are under way.
Even before the development of the new wireless infrastructure, El Camino was testing new technology that relied on a wireless network.
In 2003, the hospital learned through a venture-capital firm about Vocera, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that had developed a wireless communications device.
Since then, the hospital has purchased around 2,000 of the $400 devices, and nearly every clinician, including most of the hospital-based physicians, now uses one. The devices provide patient updates to caregivers by text or voice message, monitor staff whereabouts, and are integrated into the patient call-light system and the patient-monitoring system.
“It's our most successful wireless venture because it's integrated so much throughout the hospital,” says Cheryl Reinking, the hospital's vice chief of clinical operations. “It was 'Star Trek' at that time.”