Published: 15/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5888 Page 11 12

Going wireless allows hospitals to set up versatile networks for patients and staff without digging up walls - but there are security issues. Sally Whittle reports

Advertising watchdogs recently investigated a TV commercial for Intel's wireless-enabled processors. The commercial showed a climber watching e-mail footage of loved ones on his laptop - while he was halfway up Mount Everest.More than 100 viewers complained the ad was unrealistic, but Intel was able to show that wireless internet access is indeed possible at Everest base camp.

The camp is one of a growing number of wireless hotspots - areas where computer users can access the internet without needing wires or cables.

Hotspots work by transmitting data over radio waves, rather than by conventional phone lines or Ethernet computer cables.

Most wireless networks use a radio technology called Wi-Fi, which can carry information at 11Mb per second, 10 times faster than a typical broadband connection.

More than 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots will be rolled out this year , according to industry analyst Gartner Group.Many of these will be in corporate offices, but a growing number will be in public spaces - hotel rooms, airport lounges and hospital wards.

'The healthcare sector is one of the earliest adopters of wireless technology, particularly in the US, ' says Martin Cassidy, European operations manager of Bluesocket, a supplier ofWi-Fi technology. 'Hospitals are large buildings with a highly mobile workforce and That is a great incentive to use wireless.'

Adoption of Wi-Fi has been slower in the UK, but healthcare organisations are beginning to test the potential of the technology. Sandwell Hospital is using Wi-Fi to provide doctors and pharmacy staff with instant bedside access to databases and medical records.

Sandwell has fitted Wi-Fi access points in 20 wards.

These allow staff to access the hospital network using laptop computers when within 100 metres of an access point. The technology allows doctors to access medical databases on the wards and issue prescriptions at the bedside. This has reduced the average time taken to process a prescription by over an hour and cut errors.

The Wi-Fi network will shortly be extended to allow doctors to access x-rays and other digital images from the bedside, says head of electronic patient records Richard Brand. 'It has slashed administration time to a minimum and helps us to deliver faster care to our patients, ' he says.

When Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children wanted to extend access to its web-based education system, wireless was an extremely fast and cost-effective option. The hospital has its own school which enables children of all ages to continue their education while they are recuperating.However, some children are unable to use the hospital's Mildred Creek classroom - which has a number of PCs connected to the internet - because they are bedridden or use wheelchairs, explains Great Ormond Street IT co-ordinator John Sosna.

One option to address this was to extend the cabling to the wards and build data points that children could plug laptops into. But the hospital opted for a Wi-Fi network based on two access points in the wards and six portable wireless PC cards that can be plugged into laptops wherever and whenever they are required.

'Wi-Fi means we can address the needs of pupils who may not be able to use the PCs for mobility reasons, ' says Mr Sosna.

One of Wi-Fi's biggest benefits is providing access to information in areas that would traditionally have been too expensive or complex to connect to a network.

Extending or upgrading wired networks generally involves laying cables and installing plenty of fixed access points in walls.

Building a wireless network usually involves installing one access point per floor or ward and providing staff with a PC card that allows them to access the network.

In most cases, organisations will also need to protect Wi-Fi networks with additional security and management software. For example, information can be encrypted as it is sent across the network, so it can't be intercepted.

The basic hardware required for a Wi-Fi network can be bought on the high street for less than£250. This makes Wi-Fi networks around 90 per cent cheaper than fixed networks, but also presents managers with problems. 'The risk is that users will simply buy their own access point and put it in, because they do not like where their desk is or they want fewer cables in the office, ' says Jason Conyard, director of wireless security products with security specialists Symantec.

An unprotected Wi-Fi network can provide hackers and criminals with an easy route into an organisation's network. Even authorised Wi-Fi networks can bring about additional security risks, warns Mr Conyard: 'Many of the risks have been overblown. But without planning, security is the number one problem associated with wireless networking.'

The problem is that many organisations using Wi-Fi rely on basic security settings, usually based on a security protocol called wired equivalent privacy. The WEP protocol is not very secure, and tools are widely available on the internet for hackers to break into WEPprotected networks.Mr Conyard recommends managers look for stronger encryption products to supplement basic Wi-Fi security.

Air time: what is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi (or wireless fidelity) is a brand name used to describe any wireless network operating in a specific location, such as an office.

Wi-Fi works by replacing phone or data cables with a radio signal, which is transmitted from a card inside the laptop.A receiving device can be positioned up to 100 metres away.The network can be used by dozens of people simultaneously.The area covered by the network is known as a 'hotspot'.

Early Wi-Fi products were extremely slow and could only be used by one person at a time.Security was basic, resulting in 'driveby hacking', where anyone with a reasonable understanding of computers could break into the network.

Specialist security and management software products are now available that make a wireless network as safe and reliable as a conventional network.

Speed has also improved, and is set to improve further through new products based on a faster version of the Wi-Fi protocol.

Wi-Fi in practice: Gloucestershire health community

Three healthcare sites in Gloucestershire are implementing electronic patient records.

The aim is to provide healthcare workers with access to consistent, up-to-date information.

As part of this strategy, the Gloucestershire health community wanted to extend access to the EPR system to workers outside the main hospital offices, in wards, clinics and the wider community.'We wanted to provide access to people who didn't have constant access to PCs who would still benefit from it, 'explains Gloucestershire health community EPR director Simon Gill.

A pilot project was set up to test the potential of Wi-Fi networks to provide access in three key areas: the urology ward of Gloucester Royal Hospital, a community hospital and a mental health clinic.

Doctors using tablet PCs can access the internet from anywhere covered by the hotspot, speeding up administration and routine tasks.

The results of the pilot programme were extremely positive, says Mr Gill.'Wi-Fi is a fantastic technology, 'he says.'It gives greater and easier access to EPR systems, It is mature, reliable and easy to use.'

He believes the security scares around wireless technology are overblown.

'We followed the guidelines provided by the NHS Information Authority and we used all the security software provided by our suppliers, 'he says.'I am totally confident that Wi-Fi is secure, providing It is configured correctly.'

Following the completion of the pilot project, Gloucestershire has continued to support its wireless network, but will not be extending the system in the near future.

'We are waiting for the outcome of the national procurement process to see whether we can extend the system, 'Mr Gill says.'But I have no doubt that if we do, it will deliver a great deal of value to the community.'