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Voice over wireless helps hospital improve patient care

Coming soon: Less shouting in the ER and quicker patient response time, as a Voice over WLAN pilot project improves communication among hospital medical staff.

For one California hospital, deploying voice technology over a wireless network is the right cure for a cumbersome style of communication that transcends the ages.

"The current patient caremethodology in the emergency room is to shout out the doctor's name. That can be quite slow and loud, as you can imagine," said Irv Hoff, manager of converged networks at San Antonio Community Hospital. The Upland, Calif.-based hospital has a staff size of around 2,000, including about 400 doctors, and a patient load of about 70,000 per year. "The sooner you can get doctors talking to other doctors the better; they need to have that kind of quick communication."

The hospital just completed a pilot project that allows voice technology to run over its existing mobile network, and it plans to go live with the Voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) deployment in coming weeks. The goal is to give end users -- doctors and nurses -- the ability to roam from floor to floor in a building, or around a campus, while remaining in touch with each other.

The hospital's recent pilot project proved to Hoff that doctors and nurses can communicate instantly, their communication can take place over their organization's existing wireless network, and they can chat while using portable telephone handsets that are already familiar to them.

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In fact, during the pilot phase, Hoff said the most common complaint among users was a lack of the handset's full functionality, which fell short only because the VoWLAN rollout was still in a test phase. "The voice quality was spectacular," Hoff said. "There were no issues with dropout."

The hospital is deploying Nortel's VoWLAN technology, which combines WLAN and IP telephony. WLAN handsets run over the WLAN, alongside other wireless devices, which use direct sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) radio technology. The handsets operate on an 802.11b WLAN, giving end users a WLAN IP telephony extension off their existing PBX or IP telephony Call Server. The hospital used Nortel's 2211 and 2212 devices during its now-completed pilot phase, but models slated for long-term use have yet to be decided.

Voice quality and reliability are critical in a deployment like this, Hoff said, because the end goal is to simultaneously reduce time spent on, and improve quality of, patient care.

The voice project builds on the hospital's previous effort to improve patient care when it deployed a secured wireless network based on Trapeze Networks' technology a little more than two years ago. The hospital's Trapeze Mobility System, including the Trapeze RingMaster management tool, provided the infrastructure for a wireless system used for mobilizing radiology data throughout the hospital. The network was also used for a bedside patient-admissions process that reduced input time by up to 10 minutes per patient.

In the case of the pilot telephony project, it is estimated that doctors can save up to three minutes per patient, thanks to the ability to respond swiftly to calls -- a time savings that can then be invested directly back into patient treatment.

"We deployed Trapeze wireless technology two years ago," Hoff said. "The initial system was for mobility … we wanted that mobility, but we always knew we would deploy some type of voice solution to connect wirelessly internally and outside."

San Antonio Community Hospital currently has 200 access points, is 90% wireless and is prepared to enter its next wave of efficiency -- voice.

The question is, are today's doctors and nurses prepared to do away with telephone tag and shouting across the ER in favor of technology? "Everyone is ready for it," Hoff said. "They are all waiting for a wireless voice solution."

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That sounds really great, in theory. I hope that when they go live, it works out as well as their pilot. We have not had much success even trying to switch over to VOIP in our company. There have been many quality issues as well as load issues.

I work in the patient satisfaction industry, so this discussion caught my attention. It will be interesting to see if this technology can improve communications and patient care, like they're predicting.