Hospitals Eye Wider Use Of Wireless IP Phones

FDA bar-code rule provides impetus for more WLANs

ORLANDO -- A ruling last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that requires the use of bar codes on drugs in hospitals may also help spur the use of IP-based wireless phones by health care providers, according to IT managers and analysts.

The FDA's ruling, which coincided with the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's annual meeting here, is expected to prod hospitals to install wireless LANs to support bar code readers that will match identification data on patient wristbands with the bar codes on packaged doses of drugs.

John Hummel, CIO at Sutter Health in Sacramento, said in a phone interview that the WLANs could also be used to support calls from wireless IP phones and other voice-over-IP devices.

Sutter plans to equip all 26 of its hospitals with extensive WLANs, and Hummel said the not-for-profit health care provider has already started testing wireless IP phones made by Cisco Systems Inc. He added that Sutter is also testing an IP-based, hands-free wireless voice communicator from Vocera Communications Inc.

Indianapolis-based Community Health Network, which operates five major hospitals and numerous other medical facilities, has deployed about 100 of SpectraLink Corp.'s WLAN IP phones, said Chris Cerny, the health care company's manager of enterprise networking.

Among other uses, the phones tie into the nurse call system at Community Health's Indiana Heart Hospital, which doesn't have central nursing stations. When patients press the call buttons in their rooms, the calls are routed to SpectraLink phones that the nurses carry, Cerny said from Indianapolis.

Sutter Health is testing Cisco's wireless IP phones for potential use within hospitals.
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Sutter Health is testing Cisco's wireless IP phones for potential use within hospitals.
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Cerny said Community Health has found the voice quality of calls made on the SpectraLink phones to be equal to that of calls made on standard phones. But she added that the company did encounter some problems with the installation of the wireless VoIP system.

Ensuring wireless data coverage typically requires an abundance of access points, but Cerny said Community Health discovered that it had installed too many for voice communications. When the SpectraLink phones roamed from one access point to another, they often took too long to authenticate and disconnected before the process was completed, she said. Cerny and her staff reduced the number of access points, which solved the problem.

Wireless IP phones are likely to be a niche product for users in vertical industries like health care and retail, predicted Chris Kozup, a Meta Group Inc. analyst. But within those markets, he expects use of the devices to increase.

In addition, new classes of IP-enabled phones are emerging. For example, Nokia Corp. last week introduced a dual-band cell phone that can function as an IP phone when it senses a wireless LAN.

Rick Copple, Community Health's chief technology officer for information systems, said such phones might be able to help the company reduce airtime costs when cell phone users are within range of its WLANs.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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