Colorado Hospital Bets Big on Wireless Future

With a new campus opening its doors this summer, Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton, Colo. is arguably as wireless-enabled as a health care facility can get.

"As we started work on the campus we asked ourselves, what was our commitment organizationally to wireless?" said CFO Harold Dupper. "Where was wireless going? What would be its role in a health care organization in 2007 and beyond?"

Planners decided to go all the way. Feeling that a broad range of wireless health care apps is right around the corner, they invested $1.2 million in an infrastructure that they hope will support whatever devices, frequencies, and applications will come along.

"We said that if we don't provide for a wireless infrastructure at the beginning, we are going to end up retrofitting later and it will cost more in the retrofit than it would at the beginning," Dupper said.

The community-owned nonprofit medical center found its solution with vendor InnerWireless, in the form of a distributed antenna system called Horizon. The system delivers pervasive coverage around the campus in cell spectra, WiFi (802.11 a/b/g), VoIP, first-responder communication, two-way radios, and paging.

The distributed antenna infrastructure brings some powerful capabilities to the table. By integrating a wireless medical telemetry service solution, for instance, IT planners say they can provide uninterrupted patient monitoring across the $138 million, 50-acre campus. This means vital signs can be monitored anywhere in the hospital, even during transport to medical procedures.

Medication safety is another big area in which hospital administrators say pervasive wireless could make a big difference for patients and caregivers. They expect to have such an application in place in the near future.

IT director Randy Ferguson said he is encouraged by the breadth of spectra Horizon can accommodate. "Our pagers run at the lower spectrum, around 450 MHz, and then we go up to 5 GHz in the Wi-Fi 802.11 a spectrum," he explained. "We already have nearly half a dozen frequencies, coming out of the chute." Not only can Horizon handle these, but also, in theory, whatever additional spectra may gain common usage in the future.

InnerWireless describes Herizon as a passive utility, much as a building's power supply is a utility: A single source into which any number of devices can be connected. The distributed antenna likewise blankets the campus with wireless access and is indifferent to spectrum or device.

That flexibility is a plus in an increasingly wireless world. "We fully expect that at some point the caregivers and the physicians will be doing most of their communicating into the medical information system and getting their documentation in a wireless environment," Dupper said. This will likely bring with it a diversity of needs, all of which Dupper hopes can be accommodated on this single infrastructure.

"We theoretically never have to go back into our building and put in a new antenna of any kind. Whatever frequency comes along, we just hook it on to the antenna that we have," Ferguson said.

The new medical center opened July 10. As a new construction, rather than a retrofit, the wireless rollout was virtually invisible, with the antenna built directly into the buildings as they went up. The only hitch came the day they threw the switch, Ferguson said.

"One item we had was in bringing everything up all at one time," he said. A few core configurations were set incorrectly. Some access points were rebooting too often. It took about a month to work out the kinks -- mostly a matter of "fine tuning," Ferguson said.

In order to fully utilize the system's capabilities, the medical center has made a deal with Verizon in support of Horizon's cellular capacity. Verizon will provide pervasive cell coverage and even supply its own repeater for free, presumably in anticipation of a cellular demand that will eventually justify the expense.

The most promising aspect of the distributed antenna system, Dupper said, is the prospect of overall cost savings to the health system.

As needs change, "we can make a choice as to what frequencies we will have, and then arrange with whoever the vendor is on a method to distribute their signal on our campus," Dupper said. "It puts us in charge of what signals are used within our facility and how we get those signals."

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