Hospitals have been slow to implement wireless connectivity but with patients increasingly demanding it, some have found ways to make wifi available. Jennifer Trueland reports


Imperial has free basic wifi for patients and a premium service that allows them to pay for a high speed connection


As deputy chief information officer for Imperial College Healthcare Trust, Kathy Lanceley would be expected to recognise the benefits of good internet connectivity at work. But it was her role as a mother that really highlighted the need for wifi in healthcare settings.

“My daughter was in hospital for several months and there was no wifi,” she says. “It was very hard for me to continue to work in those circumstances. Wifi isn’t just important for patients, but also for visitors who don’t want to put their jobs in jeopardy and who want to keep in touch with work. It’s extremely important to enable that.”

Even 10 years ago, there would be virtually no expectation that hospitals or GP practices would offer wireless connectivity. But today there is a growing sense that it will be available almost everywhere, from people’s homes, to shops, cafes and public transport hubs.

Indeed, research by Kantar Media last year showed that more than four in five adults access the internet via wifi using one or more devices. Although the majority are using it at home, it is becoming increasingly common for users to seek wireless connectivity when out and about.

Breaking the barriers

The health system is no exception, although some argue that it has been slower than other sectors to make wifi available. One of the barriers has traditionally been cost, explains Ms Lanceley.

“Nobody can make the case for taking money away from direct patient care,” she says. “There’s a real struggle for money in the health service, so wifi can’t be at the expense of patient care.”

‘Wifi can’t be at the expense of patient care’

This is a debate that was recently played out on the pages of the British Medical Journal, where Leeds and York Partnership Foundation Trust’s Victoria Betton argued that internet access was essential to shared decision making and better patient outcomes. Grant Ingrams, deputy chair of the IT subcommittee of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee, however, said it was a luxury that should not take priority over other technological needs.

This discussion is only likely to continue as demand for connectivity grows. So what are trusts doing to cut through that conundrum?

Imperial, which has five main hospital sites across London, and is one of the largest acute trusts in England, introduced a comprehensive public wifi service this spring, but decided to outsource the risk.

“We had limited free wifi for renal and chemotherapy patients, but the system and equipment were very old, and it didn’t comply with new legislation,” says Ms Lanceley. “Also, it didn’t have family friendly filtering, so people could look at anything.

“We looked around at the market and saw that councils, places like Costa and McDonald’s and so on all used external providers – unless you’ve got super specialist services there already, then it’s a very big investment, so it makes sense to look at external providers.”

Imperial sought bids for a contract to provide a wifi service, but with stringent conditions.

‘It makes sense to look at external providers’

“The trust knew that it didn’t have revenue for this, so we asked for tenders for a free service with no cost to the trust or to patients. It was an extraordinary ask, but one of the companies said they would work with us to find a solution.”

Working with provider WiFi SPARK, they came up with a system that provides a free basic service for patients, visitors and members of staff to use wifi at no cost to them for browsing the internet and using email and social media. This is coupled with a premium service that allows people to pay to access high speed content such as video and audio streaming.

“If someone has a Netflix subscription, for example, they can use that with the premium service,” explains Ms Lanceley.

The new system is good for staff, she adds, because they can use it to access and upload data to central systems while they are on the move. This is important across the trust’s acute sites, but also has important implications in community settings.

“We’ve got staff working in social care and in children’s centres, and even GP practices,” she says.

Other trusts have become aware of the need to come up with imaginative ways to make wifi access work, without having a negative impact on budgets.

At King’s College Hospital FT in south London, for example, there is a mixed economy of wifi, depending partly on who is using it and for what. In general, guest public access to wifi services is a paid for service, with a funding structure that starts from £4.50 day.

There is also a variety of tariffs, including a week’s access for £12, a month for £17.50 and a year for £125. Users pay the provider directly for the service, and the provider pays the trust a fee for using its wifi distribution network.

Access to some services, such as the trust’s own website, giving ward and visitor information and NHS Direct, is free.

Tracy Scriven on patient wifi

Patient entertainment is now much more than a TV by the bed. As the leading provider of wifi services to the NHS, we have seen a heavy shift in patient demand from the legacy bedside television, to the bring your own wifi enabled device to hospital. Patients want freedom of choice and the technology they have available at home they want in the ward, accessed by their own device.

There has been a call for free to use patient wifi for the NHS for a few years now, although more so recently: it’s fair to say that the call for free to use wifi is becoming a patient demand.

Unfortunately, unlike a hotel room where the cost for wifi is included in the room rate, or an event centre where the cost is included in the event ticket, or a marina where the wifi cost is included in the mooring fees, in the NHS the cost for patient wifi provision is intangible.

All available NHS funds and budgets are available only for healthcare and direct clinical needs.

The “entertainment” of the patient while in hospital is quite rightly not a priority for the clinical environment and the cost of providing a safe and secure entertainment service continues to be contentious in a time of austerity.

WiFi SPARK is the UK leader for patient wifi, working with over 70 NHS trusts to provide an array of wifi services direct to the patient’s own wifi enabled device.

Our success is based on listening to each individual trust and providing a flexible service, being open to new ideas and new NHS initiatives, and embracing technology and the trends that this presents. More importantly, it’s about offering innovative business models that genuinely assist and benefit the trust and
its patients.

The need for patient wifi connectivity is not going away. Instead, demand will only become greater, the internet speed requirements more intense, and the weight on the hospital existing wifi infrastructure much heavier.

It is not just about connecting patients to the internet safely, securely and simply. It is about taking the patient on a positive informative journey and setting the user expectations, while assisting the trust with its communication and commercial initiatives.

This will often involve helping solve existing technical challenges with software already in use on site, which our platform can embrace.

Patients want wifi connectivity in the hospital ward. Smart trusts are finding ways to make that happen.

Tracy Scriven is sales manager for WiFi SPARK

Free for children

However, it is a different story in the children’s wards. Wifi is free to use, with the cost covered by charitable organisations.

According to trust information and communications technology services manager Nick Penlington, the service is popular with patients and visitors.

He believes there will come a time when hospitals will be expected to provide free public wifi, but cautions that it will not be easy. “There is no such thing as ‘free’ wifi; there are always costs,” he says, citing data security needs and proper filtering as well as the requirement to link it up to the internet via a provider.

The provision of public wifi will become increasingly vital as health and social care services move towards integration, says Ms Lanceley. It has the potential to overcome one of the traditional barriers – of IT systems not talking to each other.

She points to transplant nurses as one important area where public wifi can make a huge difference. “There are 29 of them in London and they’ve got to come to all sorts of sites to work,” Ms Lanceley says.

“They’ve got a fantastic central system that they can put information into. If they have access to wifi, then they can input data to that system while they are on the different premises. It’s a small example, but shows the possibilities.

“For us, having wifi has been fantastic. It’s transformative.”

Innovation in technology supplement: At the press of a button