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Wireless technology is a method of data transmission using
either infrared (IR) signals or radio frequency (RF). Infrared communications
are generally less expensive and are designed for use over short distances (the
communicating devices need to be in a straight line). Radio frequency
communications are more suited for wider areas, often separated by partitions,
support cells or roaming users and can be used as an augmentation to already
existing local area networks (LANs).
Healthcare workers are very mobile and the adoption of
wireless technology by healthcare organisations, especially when harnessed
properly, can only help to improve the delivery process. However poorly
implemented wireless technology solutions can only lead to a serious drain on
the already under pressure resources that are facing healthcare organisations.
Computer networks are now commonplace in the healthcare
organisations and in some places are indispensable. However most of the
computer devices are connected to the network through the use of wires and this
usually means that their use is limited to fixed places.
This drawback can be addressed by with the use of mobile
computing devices that can connect to the network using wireless technology.
This provides the mobile healthcare worker with an anywhere, anytime access to
information that might be needed for care.
Two of the more popular types of wireless technology standards
available are Bluetooth and the Institute of Electrical
and Electronic Engineering’s (IEEE) 802.11 standards - also known as Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth is an open specification delivering short range (10m
in radius) radio communication between electrical devices that are equipped
with Bluetooth chips. The concept of using short range radio ways as a means of
communication has been around for quite a while but it was not until 1994 that
Ecrisson Mobile Communication started work on it and called the project
Bluetooth. In 1998, Ecrisson got
together with Nokia, IBM and Toshiba to form the Bluetooth Special Interest
Group, to promote the use of the technology. Since then, its membership has
grown to include several of the big name technology and electronics companies.
The Bluetooth technology initially started off by
concentrating on mobile devices but can now be integrated into any electrical
device. When two Bluetooth enabled devices that are within range communicate,
they send each other a unique ID to identify one another. This ID would be used
to determine what type of information that could be shared and the level of
functionality that could occur between the two classes. At any one time it is
possible for a Bluetooth enabled device with seven other devices, together they
form a personal area network which is refereed to as a piconet.
Bluetooth is however not designed for heavy traffic loads and
thus cannot be used as a replacement for local area networks (LANs) but rather
as a means for providing sporadic connections for mobile computing devices. An
ideal wireless based solution for wired LAN replacement would be Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi is short for “wireless fidelity” and is used to describe
wireless solutions that adhere to the 802.11 set of standards developed by the
Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the most popular being
These standards operate using radio waves and have a range of
up to 300 meters. Wi-Fi is really an extension of the wired Ethernet and has
the same principles as its wired counterpart, thus providing its users with
high speed reliable connections to the network.
Wi-Fi is currently the standard for wireless local area
networks (WLANs), which consist of multiple access points that generate
transmission of a specific radio frequency which can be used by Wi-Fi enabled
devices to connect to an organisation’s network.
Wireless technology has been successfully deployed in a wide
range of areas within the healthcare sector, from supplies and inventory to
emergency services. In the United States, some ambulance services have installed in their vehicles
a wireless based video system that captures images of the patient and send them
to hospital for review by the emergency team ahead of their arrival. In
Singapore the ambulances have wireless devices that communicate with
traffic lights, turning red lights to green and vice versa, to free the traffic
paths of the vehicles.
Mobile workstations that utilise wireless technology allow for
real time access to the patients EMRs at their bedsides. They can also be found
in use in operating theatres where staff can keep in touch with other
specialists located in another location, sometimes another part of the world.
Healthcare workers armed with handheld devices in hospitals
that have rolled out WLANs, can now access information from patients’ records,
lab results, pharmaceutical information, insurance information, medical
resources, work schedules, as well as have instant knowledge of and access to
email when they arrive.
A new area in which wireless technology is being employed in
wireless health monitoring technology, which consists of a small device,
strapped onto the patient, that transmit physiologic data to a monitor or
workstation using wireless technology.
Despite the potential benefits wireless technology has to
offer healthcare, it is still not without its problems, namely network
performance, battery life of mobile devices, signal reliability and more
Wireless technologies are already known to have serious security flaws and this
along with the uncertainty with how it would fit with the privacy laws such as
HIPAA and the Data
Protection Act. Until these issues are addressed, it would be a while
before wireless technology fully penetrated healthcare.