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Taking the pulse of Wi-Fi-enabled healthcare devices in an IoT world

Wi-Fi connectivity is a great luxury to have in public places to power your favorite app, but what if your life-saving medical device relied on the wireless LAN to work?

Hospitals are using wireless devices and equipment — ranging from small patient monitoring sensors, to pharmacy inventory systems, all the way to large imaging systems — to care for patients. Needless to say, reliable, consistent Wi-Fi connectivity has become a critical network asset, rather than just a “nice to have” feature for many healthcare facilities.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) gains traction, Wi-Fi vendors are working to ensure they can offer their customers the functionality and management tools they’ll need to support the influx of Wi-Fi-enabled devices requiring network access and attention from IT. “It’s clear that for a lot of our customers, more devices are ‘turning on,’ or requiring network access, rather than just the typical user devices people are carrying in,” said Bruce Miller, vice president of product marketing for Xirrus, a Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Wi-Fi vendor.

Healthcare certainly isn’t the only industry grappling with supporting IoT devices. However, most other verticals aren’t faced with the challenge of supporting devices that are saving lives. Xirrus is currently working with healthcare customers, as well as customers that develop Wi-Fi-enabled medical tools and devices for the IoT. Miller also highlighted some of the wireless LAN design considerations enterprise IT teams supporting IoT devices should know.

Right out of the gate, many medical devices aren’t easy for IT teams to support. This equipment often comes with low-end wireless cards because they don’t have high bandwidth needs — especially in the case of a sensor that is reporting patient data, not streaming live video. Additionally, healthcare environments are also very “noisy” from an RF and coverage perspective, Miller said. “There are a lot of devices than can interfere [with Wi-Fi signals] – we’ve even heard of up to 20 devices in one patient room,” he said. “The number of devices is getting extreme, and in some situations, that can pose a lot of challenges.” Most healthcare facilities are also filled with many small rooms with a lot of walls that cut signal strength down, and radiology labs with metal-coated walls that are difficult to penetrate, he said.

Xirrus is encouraging its healthcare customers to design for dense environments by deploying direct, in-room Wi-Fi close to the client. This means more access points are needed in an IoT-enabled environment.

Once the wireless LAN has been bolstered to address the sheer number of devices that need support, IT must be able to understand and identify all Wi-Fi-enabled equipment in their environment, Miller said.”It’s key to be able to separate out what kind of device something is, what it does, how it operates differently from another kind of device, and lastly, how it [needs to be] supported,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a while — helping customers understand the difference between a laptop, tablet or phone, so now it’s just extending that visibility further.”

In addition to understanding what the device is, IT has to be able to make sense of the data coming from the device in an intelligent way. Then, the information must go to the right place, like patient stats to a monitoring nurse or physician or alerts to IT if a device has been moved or stolen, Miller said. “We’ve had to look at the health of…a greater variety of clients, and put those capabilities into our systems to allow IT to troubleshoot,” he said. If a device keeps disconnecting and reconnecting, or generating a lot of errors, Xirrus’ network management tools can monitor those network health stats and provide alerts to IT. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as updating a driver or software on a device, or maybe [the device] is in a bad coverage area, and IT needs to know about that, too,” he said.

Wireless LAN design and deployment has changed dramatically over the years, and they also can vary by industry. “On our side, we’ve turned our procedures and best practices upside down from what we used to do just a few years ago…We also base our products on upgradable hardware so business don’t have to roll out a whole new set of products when things change in their environment,” Miller said. “We recommend higher signal strength everywhere, 5 gig everywhere, and being able to support an adaptable infrastructure that can conform to new requirements.”

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