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Wireless: Good for the nation’s health

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At the end of last year, the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that all NHS buildings were to be equipped with free Wi-Fi in a bid ‘to improve medical treatment and patient experience.’

Most of the reporting around the news was without much fanfare, with quotes verging on the underwhelming, such as this from an NHS spokesperson in the Independent newspaper: “Wi-Fi would certainly improve patients’ experience of hospital, and enable doctors and nurses to adopt better ways of working through portable devices.”

Interestingly, most quotes featured this dual benefit, in that pointed patients-medics order, slightly skewing people’s take-out from the story, as evidenced by this riposte on social media: “Oh here, have some free Wi-Fi so you can watch Netflix and be distracted about the NHS cuts." Suddenly, a good news story that was meant to be about a significant investment in digital healthcare was at risk of being derailed. Here’s another – “Free Wi-Fi in hospitals – how about paying NHS staff their worth, more beds, essential equipment and even free parking.”

And therein, I think, lies the government PR machine’s mistake, in not making it explicitly clear that Wi-Fi is precisely the sort of essential equipment that a 21st century NHS should have at its disposal. Yes, there were brief mentions in the news reports of Wi-Fi encouraging the use of technologies that could cut paperwork and errors, and help alert staff to medical problems. There were references to e-prescriptions and wearable tech, but no-one really registered just how transformational wireless can be in the health service of the future.

Just think about the changes we’ve already enjoyed as consumers and as workers – an amazing amount of power available to us where we stand as a result of the proliferation of Wi-Fi at home, in public spaces and the workplace. Now take all that agility, access, capability and flexibility and put it in the healthcare domain and imagine what you can achieve. In fact I don’t have to imagine as Redcentric is already working with a number of hospital trusts on their wireless strategies and we’re seeing real change at the coal-face: from improved clinical care at the bedside with instance access to real-time Electronic Patient Records, mobile drugs trollies, faster referrals and discharges, remote consults, and alert-based monitoring; to enhanced staff communication, connectivity and collaboration through the use of wireless telephony; to innovative projects such as the auto replenishment of operating theatre stores and development of mobile clinical applications.

The increasing availability of wireless is a lot more important than patients having access to Facebook (though it’s a handy by-product) and the seismic changes it could bring about are rather undersold by a government that talks rather robotically of the NHS being ‘digital and paperless’ by 2020. It is already having a massive impact in certain trusts, it’s proving itself a true enabling platform. But a word of caution. Over the years, the NHS hasn't been able to buy a good word about its IT initiatives, with rampant cost only being matched by reckless failure and an accusatory trail of damning PR bringing up the rear. There’ll be plenty of scrutiny going forward, to ensure the £1billion technology fund is being used wisely and to good effect. A wireless roll-out across a technically and physically challenging hospital estate has plenty of pitfalls for the unwary, plenty of scope for ills to afflict the programme. It’s a project for the specialist, not the GP, so consult well before you choose your wireless provider.

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