NHS hospitals 'missing major tech opportunity'
Hospitals which do not provide Wi-Fi for patients are missing a huge opportunity for cost savings.
Free public internet access is often seen as the norm, yet NHS hospitals are lagging behind other public places in offering the service.
Gavin Wheeldon, chief executive of Wi-Fi provider Purple in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, says that the benefits of connecting patients with the outside world go much further than allowing them to catch up on their emails and Facebook.
“To me it seems ludicrous that you would put someone in somewhere for days with no access to the outside world,” he told BusinessCloud.
“Although it’s only early days for Wi-Fi in healthcare I’d be certain that if you fast-forward a few years there would be research that shows connectivity to the outside world improves recovery times.”
Wheeldon’s business supplies Wi-Fi access to Airedale NHS Foundation Trust in West Yorkshire and Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Essex, and is in discussions with a number of other NHS organisations.
In December last year, health secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged that all NHS buildings would offer free Wi-Fi to enable it to become a world leader in digital healthcare.
The plans will be made possible using a £1bn technology fund and is part of the move for the NHS to be digital and paperless by 2020 .
Aside from the social aspect, NHS England’s paper-free vow and moves to encourage patients to be able to access their own medical records can surely only be made possible with improved access .
Of the hospital trusts that charge, costs vary with patients able to choose from three hours’, daily, weekly or monthly access.
“The irony is that pretty much all NHS trusts have the infrastructure in place for clinical purposes but very few provide free Wi-Fi,” Wheeldon said.
“The leap between what they have now and providing a different service for 2,000 users is not that far, it might just be a case of increasing bandwidth to cope with that.”
While a platform like Purple would handle the on-boarding of the extra users, filtering and security aspects, the analytics tools available would also have a positive impact on other areas of a hospital.
Allowing visitors to access the network would offer a glimpse at which areas of a building are in use and show how long a device dwells in a given area.
Using this information, hospital chiefs could get a better picture of waiting times in accident and emergency departments and then take steps to address them, Wheeldon said, adding that this same use of data analytics is used by their airport clients.
Wayfinding would be another bonus.
“How many times have you been to a hospital and been unable to know where you’re going?” Wheeldon added.
Visitors, patients and locums would be able to log onto the Wi-Fi network and use maps of the hospital to locate where they need to be.
The information gathered would reveal how people use the building and what routes they are taking.
“Maybe people are travelling inefficiently around a building and the hospital could change signage to improve this,” Wheeldon continued.
“The data will reveal all sorts of user behaviour as you go on that could make a hospital ask why that was happening and then take steps to address it.”
Asset tracking is another benefit, with many tech experts predicting all hospitals will move to this method of knowing where equipment is and how often stock needs to be replenished.
Sensors can be placed on equipment and zones drawn up around the hospital, with rules associated with each piece of equipment about where it should be located.
If a piece of equipment moves away from the zone it should be in, an alert is sent to the relevant person.
Similarly, Wheeldon says, a tracking system such as this could be used to ensure greater security for vulnerable adults or children, who would wear a band around the wrist that would send a message to medics if they left a designated area.
Health awareness messages could be targeted at patients who log on and traffic could be diverted to a trust’s social media channels to create a greater following. Customer service scores could also benefit.
Once a patient’s phone is seen to have left the hospital – and therefore their stay has come to an end – a trust could send a feedback email to their device to encourage feedback while the visit is fresh in their minds.
While these are just some of the benefits, the changing nature of technology and its potential means other knock-on effects would present themselves further down the line.
Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust replaced its paid access model with free guest Wi-Fi in 2015 to enable public access to internet services without charge to users.
However, a spokesperson for the trust says it is not currently using the Wi-Fi to analyse data or track assets.
“The trust does not use guest Wi-Fi for these purposes as there are a number of considerations to be taken into account regarding the use of patient and visitor data, the consents necessary and ongoing management of the data as required by legislation,” he said.
“The guest Wi-Fi provision at the trust is for the convenience of patients and visitors however it may in future contribute to information on traffic flows.”
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