Security, data and network communications are only the beginning:

Homeland security demands, staff reductions and dwindling resources—these are common maladies facing healthcare facilities across the United States; for many hospitals, such concerns are coupled with greater competition and higher customer service demands, making the process of keeping a hospital safe, efficient and profitable somewhat formidable and overwhelming.

Electronic systems need to provide more than security. Although 9/11 has magnified concerns about patient safety, crime in hospitals is an even greater threat, and disaster preparedness takes precedence. But hospital facility managers have more than security on their minds today—they also need to worry about saving money and increasing efficiency. Hospital theft pales in comparison with the money lost from inefficiency and poor planning of systems and facilities.

Hospital administrators need to know where their visitors, patients, equipment and pharmaceuticals are, partially for security reasons and partially to ensure the entire process runs smoothly.

Nearly every hospital facility director faces financial challenges and other pressures. Unlike many businesses, said Toni Neal, solutions marketing manager for Siemens Building Technologies, Buffalo Grove, Ill., hospital facilities are affected by fluctuating revenue sources.

“Whether it is Congress or state government, managed care plans or insurance plans, or treating the uninsured, there is no steady source of revenue,” Neal said. In addition, she said, there always is a concern about personnel shortages. Not only do hospitals have fewer dollars to pay nurses, there simply aren’t as many nurses available as there were in previous decades.

Hospital facilities are being faced with more educated consumers, Neal said. The Internet enables patients to shop around for the best healthcare to suit their needs, and hospitals must compete for their attention.

With all these issues in mind, post-9/11 security is not yet where it should be for most medical facilities. Hospital administrators are charged with making their facility a more comfortable place to stay, but also safer and better prepared for an emergency, which is a massive undertaking. Most hospital security directors are in the unenviable position of having greater demands and less funding, so they continue to look for solutions that include integrated communications and data technology.

Securing the site

Security always is a concern at a hospital because of the nature of who and what is treat treated there. A recent Justice Department study showed hospital emergency departments across the country treat more than 1.3 million people a year for injuries caused by violent attacks, an increase of 250 percent over previous government estimates. According to a 2000 study by Erickson and Williams-Evans, 82 percent of nurses surveyed reported being assaulted sometime during their employment.

Hospitals spend more than $500 billion each year, with $1.5 billion for security, Neal said. “Though there is heightened awareness among hospital owners and operators, security issues can’t always be at the top of their list,” Neal said. Security systems need to be part of the planning and design phase, she said. That means getting the hospital’s security department involved early in construction projects, so the systems are optimally designed to ensure the safety of patients, visitors and staff members.

According to Scott Cohen, CEO of Parco Merged Media, Portland, Maine, hospital administrators are interested in doing everything they can to protect their assets and their patients. So increasingly, they are opting for wireless tracking such as radio frequency identification (RFID) bracelets and readers.

“Every hospital will put the bands in where they’re needed,” Cohen said. That amounts to about 20 to 30 percent of the building, he said, including emergency rooms, catheter labs and surgical suites. In these areas, hospitals are using wireless systems to locate and monitor the patients and the devices they use and medications they take.

“Ninety-two percent of theft [related to hospital equipment and pharmaceuticals] takes place before it ever reaches the hospital,” Cohen said. While crimes such as infant abductions are very real concerns, the wristband systems that most hospitals use clearly are working the way they need to be, even though the  greatest hindrance is cost. “There is nowhere to improve on it,” Cohen said.

There still is room for improvement in nurse, doctor and patient communication and data access. It can include tracking easily what medications a patient has taken, whether a medical pump is operating properly on a patient or monitoring exactly where a newborn baby is in the nursery.

A new emerging solution, ZigBee technology, is being embedded in a wide range of products and applications across consumer, commercial, industrial and government markets worldwide. It allows companies to have a standards-based wireless platform designed for the needs of remote monitoring and control applications. And the technology generally is simple, reliable, low-cost and low-power. Furthermore, a group of companies that makes up the ZigBee Alliance is working to build wireless intelligence and capabilities into everyday devices. This means installations of the technology could expand widely in coming years. 

Hospitals seek integration

In all areas of voice/data/video and security, migration to integrated systems is occurring in hospitals. These systems help save time and labor, and that’s just what they need, said Ericka Chesnul, marketing manager, Jeron Electronic Systems, Chicago.

“Hospitals have less staff, but they need to provide the same level of care. They’re looking for integration,” to make that happen, Chesnul said.

Healthcare organizations, pharmaceutical and medical supply companies also are using Internet protocol (IP)-based solutions to meet the challenges of today’s increasingly complex healthcare environment. Attention continues to focus on IP solutions and their ability to help solve a hospital’s data and communication problems. An IP system allows the healthcare facility to transmit electronic patient information from one location to another and can transmit data to hospital staff, patients, insurers and suppliers in multiple, remote locations.

Berkshire Health Systems (BHS), Berkshire County, Mass., uses an internal electronic patient record transfer and internal picture archive and communications system (PACs) image transfer system using a relay network as the backbone of its virtual private network (VPN). Multiple dedicated Internet access (DIA) connections allow BHS to deploy numerous applications supporting physician communications, e-mail transmission, file sharing and patient information access.

BHS uses Global Crossing’s voice and data communications across 17 of its locations. That includes audio conferencing capabilities that allow 10 different program managers from BHS’s various long-term care facilities to hold weekly meetings without leaving their offices. BHS also has installed desktop video equipment in each of its facilities to provide physicians and staff members with video communications. The existing Global Crossing network will act as the backbone for IP video transmission, adding the impact of instant visual communications, enhancing collaboration, efficiency and responsiveness throughout the patient care system.

Chesnul said the success of IP networks still depends on life safety standards.

“As the Internet gets more reliable, there may be more IP solutions, but I don’t see [hospital networks] ever being 100 percent IP-based. A lot is going to be hybrid between hardwiring and IP,” Chesnul said.

In the meantime, hospital administrators continue to closely scrutinize their integration options, looking for the best solution, one that enhances facilities, data management functions and mobility, and adds security all in one package.             

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.