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Can You Hear Me Now?

A study finds many wireless networks are problematic for hospital-based nurses.

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In just about any workplace, you hear a lot of talk about the importance of communication and teamwork.

Nowhere are those two concepts more critical than in healthcare. In a hospital, a breakdown in communication among staff members likely means a breakdown in patient care, which can bear disastrous, even fatal, results.

For nurses, being able to quickly and effectively communicate with patients and fellow care team members is especially crucial.

In theory, wireless communication networks are supposed to make it easier for nurses to do just that. If a recent survey is any indication, however, significant communication problems exist for many hospital-based nurses at the point of care.

In the survey, Spyglass Consulting Group conducted more than 100 interviews with nurses working in acute care and home health nursing environments nationwide. According to a majority of the nurses polled, incompatible wireless networks are actually making their jobs more difficult.

"Hospitals are purchasing communications solutions from different vendors requiring different mobile handsets that operate over different wireless frequencies," said Gregg Malkary, managing director of Spyglass.

"Nurses are forced to carry multiple communication devices to address specific job functions and responsibilities. Critical messages, non-critical messages and spam are frequently interspersed on the same or different devices, making it difficult to filter, manage and prioritize communications from team members."

It may be time for many healthcare facilities to rethink their wireless network systems, and the IT department must collaborate with nursing staff to understand their workflow issues and how wireless communications can help resolve those problems, Malkary recently told ADVANCE.

Design issues

Flawed network design may be at the root of many nurses' wireless communication problems, according to Malkary. 

A majority of nurses seem to agree. Seventy-one percent of the hospital-based nurses responding to the Spyglass survey said that wireless networks at their facilities were poorly designed, resulting in coverage gaps, wireless interference and overloaded access points.

Indeed, many wireless networks are not optimized to adequately support nurses at the point of care, Malkary said.

"Networks need to have uniform coverage throughout the facility, which requires adequate bandwidth capacity," he said. "You frequently find you're overloading some access points in certain parts of the hospital, and in other areas you have no coverage at all. You walk across the hospital floor and you might have varying levels of coverage."

Insufficient coverage can result in dropped data and voice connections, which makes it difficult for nurses to document patient care at the bedside or communicate with team members, Malkary pointed out.

For nurses, dropped communications translate to inefficiency and, ultimately, poorer care, he continued.

"A nurse can use wireless technology to document patient care and make [patient] assessments, which can take a half-hour to an hour. A dropped connection could mean a loss of data for that time [or longer]. That's devastating.

"So if you're a nurse," Malkary asked, "are you going to want to utilize that solution again? Or maybe you're using voice-over Internet protocol [VoIP] to communicate with other team members, but the communication is unintelligible, which could result in medical errors."

Beyond increasing the likelihood of medical mistakes, ineffective wireless communication can also lead to potential HIPAA violations, "because now you're talking about [patients'] issues in front of other patients or in front of patients' families," he said. "That's a very big issue."

Can You Hear Me Now?

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