Latest 802.11 WiFi Standards Could Boost Medical Device Connectivity

As the WiFi standards 802.11ac and 802.11ad near adoption, they could advance video collaboration and medical device connectivity in hospitals.

The new WiFi standards 802.11ac and 802.11ad could drive a new wave of connectivity in hospitals, according to Jay Botelho, director of product management at WildPackets, a company that develops networking hardware and software.

Due for ratification by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in December, 802.11ac will become the new WiFi standard, picking up where 802.11n left off, according to Botelho. It will incorporate channel bonding and multiple input-multiple output (MIMO) technology, allowing for sending data over multiple antennas at the same time, according to a WildPackets blog post.

Products with 802.11ac will hit the market later this year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"What [802.11ac] is able to do is with a single radio is what [802.11n] would have done with three radios," Botelho told eWEEK. Achieving a data rate of 450M bps with a single radio on an iPhone could allow doctors to look up electronic health records (EHRs), he said.

"That's pretty fast for anything handheld, and that's really going to help in that hospital environment," Botelho said, referring to the need to send medical data back and forth between providers.

"It's quick but it's a fairly intensive load of data that needs to come back," he said. "You want it to come back as quickly as possible and not have to break it up into a bazillion packets to get it to come back."

The 802.11ac standard operates in the 5GHz band, which brings less interference than the 2.4GHz. Although hospitals will still need to connect devices to the Internet using 802.11ac or 802.11n, they can use the 60GHz bands of 802.11ad for high-demanding localized tasks.

Ratified in December 2012, the 802.11ad version of WiFi is a short-range technology and can be blocked easily by obstructions such as walls, Botelho said.

"What 'ad' is promising to be is a technology worthy of being that 'wireless office,' that ability to replace all the cables that I attach to my PC or my TV or my DVR," Botelho said.

In addition, 802.11ad can deliver data rates of up to 7G bps and works up to a distance of about 10 meters compared with the other standards' ability to reach clients from access points approximately 100 meters away, he said.

"It's very different but very applicable in the hospital environment," Botelho said, referred to 802.11ad. "It's really going to help hospitals be able to manage the kinds of applications they want to manage."

The 802.11ad standard could allow doctors to switch their connection from 802.11ac or 802.11n to "ad" to run an electrocardiogram, he said. They would use 802.11ac or 802.11n to connect the EKG machine to the Internet, and "ad" could connect an EKG unit to a wireless monitor.

New features in 802.11ac and 802.11ad include beam forming, which allows a client device and access point to learn each other's locations. Connecting medical equipment using 802.11ad could be more secure than in 802.11n or 802.11ac because hospitals can tune their antennas rather than having the signal travel broadly in all directions, Botelho explained.

"So instead of the antenna sending the signal in all directions ... it modifies the antenna in real time and sends the data in the direction it needs to go in, making it more secure and the access more reliable," he said.

Dropped packets in slower standards can be a danger in health care and even be a problem where real-time video is important, including consumer devices such as baby monitors.

"The fact that hospitals rely so much on real time means that these new protocols that have much greater throughput and much greater reliability are really key for them, and it's going to drive a new wave of wireless capability for health care and hospitals," Botelho said.

Due to a slow pace of capital expenditures and infrastructure upgrades, "there's still a lot of wires in the hospital," Botelho said.

Expanding WiFi in hospitals will allow doctors to access X-ray images wirelessly on a mobile device such as an iPad, he said.

In addition, Botelho noted that IV machines and equipment used to conduct computed axial tomography (CAT) scans, X-rays, electrocardiograms and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs) all lack wireless connectivity. "All of that goes through a wired network today," according to Botelho.

With 802.11ad's support of HDMI, the new standard could aid the use of video cameras during surgery, Botelho noted.

"Certainly most things that have a video component absolutely will have that—something that a doctor has to look at," he said.