Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tips From a Road Warrior (16): WiFi in the Sky?

Some airline carriers are starting to offer WIFI in the sky, allowing one to check email, and/or browse the Internet. Certain sites and/or applications are apparently blocked, for example, you cannot use SKYPE or any other Internet carrier to make calls from the sky (yet). So, I was very excited when I boarded a flight from the East Coast to find that they were promoting the service with a free introductory offer. However, this turned out to be a very frustrating experience as pretty much everyone on the plane had the same idea. Even though this was a small plane (a MD-80), the WiFi capacity was obviously way too limited. The router kept dropping web connections and on several occasions the login was rejected due to too many users. 

WiFi is also taking off in healthcare institutions. Wireless portable x-ray systems are becoming very popular, as it allows you to query a worklist at the unit, preview the image taken and send it wirelessly to its destination, which can be the PACS, a QA station, or directly to a radiologist. This has helped "instant radiology" become a reality. There undoubtedly will be a big push from physicians to allow entering orders over the wireless network as well. 

As you may recall CPEO (centralized physician order entry) is a requirement for Meaningful Use implementation for Electronic Health Records. Ordering medications and diagnostic procedures from the bedside using a wireless tablet or smart phone should be feasible. Also, the ability to show results on the tablet is becoming reality as the first tablets for this use were recently approved by the FDA. 

This all shows great potential, however, before you get too excited, you might want to take it slowly. For example, I recently saw a portable unit in a corridor in a hospital and upon asking why it was not being used, they told me that they had so many issues with the wireless connection that they basically did not use this particular manufacturer anymore. As you may know, hospitals have many physical barriers to wireless signals, steel firewalls, and lead-lined walls surrounding x-ray rooms interfere with electromagnetic signals, including wireless signals. 

The lesson learned here is that, while wireless networking is definitely worth the investment, you need to make sure that you test the devices thoroughly prior to introducing them. Make the purchase and final payment of new wireless devices dependent on proper functioning in your environment. Last but not least, if you use standard web transmission technology, make sure the information is encrypted as others can easily listen in. If you take these precautions, WiFi will definitely enhance your healthcare practice. In the meantime, I hope they fix the bugs in the airplane WiFi so I can check my email in the sky, instead of having to catch up after my trips.