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Wireless Technology

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 802.11b.

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 worrisomely security.

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.



International Medical Informatics Association
American Medical Informatics Association
UK Health Informatics Society
Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society

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Last Updated: 10 August 2006.

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