Hospitals to use CBRS private wireless networks to enhance care

Doctors with a tablet
Most patient devices are currently connected with cables, but CBRS networks could create the opportunity to unplug some of these devices. (Getty/Motortion)

Healthcare facilities are likely to connect people and equipment to private CBRS networks in the future. IT professionals that focus on healthcare are evaluating the technology and talking to the makers of connected medical devices about the idea of adding CBRS radios to their products. Use cases include outdoor connectivity, asset tracking, critical communications and patient monitoring.

Outdoor connectivity

This use case for CBRS emerged in the healthcare industry with the COVID-19 pandemic. An Illinois hospital used CBRS to connect outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots to their indoor networks, enabling nurses to test and triage patients outside the hospitals. By connecting to the indoor network, the hospitals were able to onboard new patients efficiently, and nurses could use some of the same equipment they would have used indoors.  

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“They have laptops, etc. outside but their Wi-Fi doesn’t reach, and also HIPAA makes them hesitant to put that data on a public cellular network,” explained Juan Santiago, who leads the Ruckus CBRS business for CommScope, one of the companies certified by the FCC to manage CBRS spectrum.  

Asset tracking

Santiago also sees asset tracking as a potential use case for CBRS in hospitals. He said one medical center is already using CBRS to track mobile diagnostic equipment in an area where the public cellular coverage is not reliable enough. He said batteries and CBRS radios were installed on the carts that carry the equipment; carts which he said also carry controlled substances to patients. “They can actually monitor that 24/7 to make sure there is no abuse,” he said.  

CBRS Alliance President Dave Wright, who also works at CommScope, added that putting CBRS radios on medical equipment can expedite deployment of tools needed for surgery. He said that when doctors need to reconfigure operating theaters it is helpful to be able to quickly find carts that may be located in another room. 

Critical communication

Right now, many hospitals rely on Wi-Fi and on public cellular for internal communication. Patients and guests rely on these same networks for communication that is much less critical.

“Aunt Susie’s Netflix watching is not as important as ‘get the doctor in here now with a crash cart,’ “said technology analyst Chris DePuy of The 650 Group. But most Wi-Fi networks do not currently have the ability to differentiate or prioritize traffic. 

Congested Wi-Fi networks may also lack the bandwidth needed for some internal hospital communications. “When you have a fairly substantial pass-through of data such as an X-ray or imagery or data from a test from a patient, you need a secure, fairly robust network,” said Richard Bernhardt, CMO of the Wireless Innovation Forum (WINN Forum). 

Patient monitoring

Patient monitoring is another form of very critical communication and is usually accomplished with specialized devices connected to the patient. Most of these are currently connected with cables, but CBRS networks could create the opportunity to unplug some of these devices, allowing patients to move more freely and making it easier for nurses to care for them. 

“Hospitals need to move more to a wireless environment,” said Wright of the CBRS Alliance. “But if you are doing that in unlicensed spectrum you are trying to send heart monitors across the same spectrum guests are using.” 

Putting monitors onto a CBRS network would require CBRS chipsets in or near the monitors, and makers of these devices are unlikely to add a new form of connectivity unless it is requested by their customers. According to CommScope’s Santiago, medical professionals are currently asking vendors to include CBRS chips in two-way radios worn by nurses. If that is successful, patient monitoring could follow. 

These are among the reasons hospital IT directors are starting to evaluate investments in private CBRS networks. Unfortunately, some healthcare technology investments may be delayed in 2020 and even beyond because of COVID-19, which delayed the elective surgeries that boost revenue for many hospitals.

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