The short answer? Probably not. How about RFID, wireless medical devices? Amost certainly not.

Most hospital WLAN deployments entail throwing up APs (access points) every 100 meters based on eyeballing a floor plan or running a heat map application (that estimates AP placement). Given the frequent tweaking of AP placement after deployment - even for simple data applications like meds administration or charting - one might think there's a lack of awareness as to what's really required to plan and deploy a WLAN in a hospital, and get it right the first time. That's exactly what I explain in a column published in today's Health-IT World News email newsletter, titled Wireless VoIP Reveals WLAN Challenges.

I spoke with Bruce Van Nice of Trapeze Networks and Geri Mitchell-Brown from SpectraLink for the column. Bruce and Geri mentioned they had an educational challenge with both hospitals and resellers. According to Geri, "Many in IT think of a wireless LAN as an extension of wired Ethernet, but the introduction of the RF link to wireless devices adds a new level of complexity, like finding optimal AP placement and dealing with things like multipath interference." The most frequent problem that Geri's seen is when customers don't ask for help before implementing the system - then SpectraLink frequently gets calls complaining of "noisy handsets" or dropped calls, which are really network deployment issues.

Not mentioned in the column is that SpectraLink is the wireless VoIP vendor used by Memorial Hospital. SpectraLink has been selling Wi-Fi VoIP for over six years. They've got an interesting program for certifying WLAN infrastructure vendors. They evaluate the WAN vendor's implementation of technology standards, performance metrics, and then run a pre certification test plan - twice, once by the WLAN vendor in their lab and once by SpectraLink in their lab. Each vendor ends up with the other's equipment in their lab so either or both of them can reproduce and fix customer problems. This lab approach is standard operating procedure in the IT systems integration world - but it's virtually unheard of in medical device integration, which is too bad.

Performance metrics has a big impact on resulting application performance. Not too long ago I was involved in an evaluation of WLAN infrastructure vendors for a medical device vendor. Trapeze Networks was on the short list because of their mobility strengths, in particular, handoffs between APs and roaming across subnets. Many mobile hospital users roam across wide areas - respiratory techs and monitored patients going to surgery or diagnostic departments come to mind. Applications in hospitals, besides VoIP, require low latency and reliable handoffs.

Also not mentioned in column is that your VoIP needs assessment should look at wireless voice system's "intelligence" like the ability to ask for the "closest case worker" rather than just dialing numbers. And if your goal is to design and deploy your WLAN once, be sure to consider wireless device proliferation and the resulting capacity that will be required - also don't forget wireless medical devices. At the last HIMSS Welch Allyn introduced a wireless vital signs monitor, and GE and Spacelabs introduced wireless patient monitors - all on 802.11b. The smart pump vendors were out in force as well. Medical device support is similar to VoIP; roaming and latency are important, as are a number of other things.

If you've had any experiences like these (or would like to avoid them), give me a call. You can subscribe to the Health-IT World newsletter here.

UPDATE: I guess it would help if I mentioned the key WLAN applications that present the biggest differences in requirements for WLAN planning and site surveys: they are broad scale bedside data apps (like CPOE), indoor positioning/RFID, wireless VoIP (or VoWIP), and wireless medical devices.

Some wireless medical device applications may be pretty wimpy now (like updating drug formularies in infusion pumps) but the end game includes life threatening alarms (LTAs), continuous monitoring, and someday device interoperability with other devices and information systems. When you implement one of these applications, your hospital network will become part of an FDA regulated medical device (covered by their 510(k) and intended use statement). Relax though, it's not as scary as it sounds; but it will mean substantial changes.