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Medical group upgrades hospital Wi-Fi from Cisco to Aruba

The 28-building Medical Center Health System in Odessa, Texas, replaced its Cisco hospital Wi-Fi network and moved to Aruba to handle user growth, boost performance, plan for IoT and move toward mobile-first.

One of the largest medical centers in West Texas replaced its hospital Wi-Fi network to support staff and visitors, have enough capacity to add applications and prepare to deliver on the internet of things for personnel and equipment tracking.

Medical Center Health System (MCH) in Odessa, Texas, has 28 buildings scattered across the city of 160,000 people. It operates a hospital with more than 400 beds that serves 17 counties in sparsely populated West Texas. What MCH Odessa needed was a robust wireless foundation -- the new network can support up to 2,500 simultaneous users across the medical center -- and one that could grow as demands and requirements change.

Choosing a new Wi-Fi network

MCH Odessa relied on a Cisco wireless network for the last 10 years, but the need to upgrade its wireless capabilities became more evident as the number of users on the hospital Wi-Fi network grew. The biggest problem with the old network included issues with disconnects and poor connection quality. The hospital itself faced challenges enabling physicians to use wireless devices, even as it worked to improve how patients and guests accessed the Wi-Fi network.

MCH Odessa began evaluating its wireless demands in 2016 -- fueled, in part, by a need to upgrade its electronic medical records (EMR) capabilities, according to Gary Barnes, senior vice president and CIO. The new, cloud-based EMR, which went live April 1, required additional bandwidth, and MCH Odessa also needed additional support for its existing virtual desktop infrastructure.

The hospital also wanted a Wi-Fi system that could support business-critical applications, like its Vocera VoIP software, and ultimately handle internet of things (IoT) initiatives to track medical devices and personnel.

Finally, MCH Odessa wanted a wireless system that could offer tiered levels of user access, segment the network for staff and visitors, and offer different levels of performance. For now, the hospital charges guests to help offset the cost of the higher bandwidth on the new network. 

Implementing the hospital Wi-Fi network

After a successful proof-of-concept trial with Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, the MCH Odessa IT team worked with third-party installers to replace the old Cisco network with the Aruba devices.

A number of factors went into choosing Aruba, according to Brad Shook, director of IT operations at MCH Odessa. These included the cost; Aruba's AirWave management system, which Shook said had a better user interface to enable IT to determine which users are consuming the most bandwidth; the type of traffic they are generating; and the quality of service their devices are receiving.

"We really liked that with AirWave, we can play back how a device moves through the wireless network, because it lets us track quality through the entire lifecycle of the device," Shook said. "Ease of implementation and security were also key factors in our decision."

MCH Odessa ultimately installed 450 Aruba access points that support 802.11 ac, Wave 2 wireless connectivity across its 28-building medical campus. The hospital also installed Aruba Mobility Controllers, as well as ClearPass guest and policy manager systems.

During the upgrade, the biggest challenge proved to be the architecture of many of MCH Odessa's older buildings -- brick and concrete structures from the 1950s, with thick walls that interfered with Wi-Fi signals. The installation team had to rearrange and reinstall a few access points to ensure service in the older buildings.

Wi-Fi operates in the unlicensed bands, is nearly universal in clients today and supports all applications, including EMR and VoIP, with the best possible price and performance, according to Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass.

If you're thinking of updating your EMR, you might as well upgrade your network at the same time.
Gary BarnesCIO, MCH Odessa

"As for IoT, we believe Wi-Fi will dominate here over time as chipsets with the power, size and cost profiles required become plentiful," Mathias said. "This will enable even inexpensive devices to leverage the infrastructure, including operations management, that's already installed -- another huge cost savings."

MCH Odessa's IT department saw the benefits of the new system as soon as it went into service. Shook said the GUI that offers visuals of bandwidth usage and provides the ability to play back a device's activity on the network gives the IT team a better understanding of the network.

The new wireless infrastructure also dovetailed with plans to expand the hospital's mobile device and IoT framework. "With our current need to address a variety of mobile and medical devices on the network and our planned IoT initiatives, securing all of these devices as we onboard them is crucial," Shook said.

Looking to the future

Barnes said he believes other hospitals and medical facilities can learn from MCH Odessa's experience. "If you're thinking of updating your EMR, you might as well upgrade your network at the same time," he said.

"We want to give all users the ability to use their tablet or whatever mobile device they have to securely pull up a virtual desktop ... [this installation is] helping us move to a mobile-first environment."

Going forward, the hospital is interested in improving VoIP communications, as well as beefing up asset and personnel tracking. The latter could lead to setting up hospital service guarantees that may, for example, stipulate that a nurse visit a room a certain number of times a day.

"We have a lot of plans ... from compliance tracking to automation," Shook said.  "We can generate reports on how frequently nurses entered a patient room and how long they were in the rooms, giving us the ability to present this information to patients."

Next Steps

The best approach to hospital telecom

Steps to improve hospital wireless

Exploring wireless and Wave 2

This was last published in April 2017

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