The ins and outs of wireless networking

November 17, 2006

Doctors need Wi-Fi that's more secure and reliable than a homeowner needs.

Already ubiquitous in hotels, coffee shops, schools, libraries, airports, and homes, wireless (or Wi-Fi) networks are making inroads in physician offices, too.

They're spreading because electronic health records are spreading. As more and more doctors review and enter patient data on glowing screens, they increasingly want to be as mobile as any laptopper at Starbucks.

Going wireless is easy-maybe a little too easy. For home computer users, it's as simple as buying a piece of networking hardware that costs less than $100 and which, after software installation, works as soon as they plug it in and turn it on. On average, the installation time is only about an hour, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry umbrella group.

You also need more reliability from your wireless networks than the average home computer user. After all, you can't afford to lose the all-important network connection on your tablets and laptops while you're seeing patients ("I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, but I can't call up your lab results."). And it's often harder to establish a reliable wireless network in a medical office than in a home. Just ask a doctor who's experiencing interference because five or six neighbors down the hall have Wi-Fi.

For the sake of greater security and reliability, then, you must carefully choose your wireless hardware and know how to configure and install it for top performance. We interviewed computer consultants and other experts to give you a game plan.

First, select the right hardware

Going wireless doesn't mean abandoning your current network of wired computers. In most cases, medical practices are creating hybrid networks, says Mark Johnson, president of MediNetwork, an IT firm in Dallas. That translates into wired desktop computers for the front desk and the back office, wireless tablets or laptops for doctors and nurses. Transmitting and accessing data on wireless computers will be a little slower than on wired ones, but you won't see a significant difference in performance unless you're dealing with data-heavy files like diagnostic images.

The hardware you need for the wireless side depends on the wired gear you use now. If you're connected to the Internet-and most doctors are, according to Manhattan Research-you may already have a router.

This piece of hardware directs traffic between one computer network, like yours, and another one, like the Internet. You can create a wireless network by simply plugging a piece of hardware called an "access point" into the router. The little antennas on an access point transmit radio signals and receive them from wireless computers. Larger offices may need two or more access points to cover every nook and cranny. What you get is a connection between your mobile computers-via your server-to the entire office network as well as the Internet.

If you don't have a router now, or want to replace the one you have, you can buy a wireless router that incorporates an access point in addition to other important features, such as a firewall and controls that keep employees from visiting, say, gambling websites. You may need to add one or more free-standing access points to extend the reach of your network.

Count on spending between $50 and $500 for a single free-standing access point. That's also the price range for most wireless routers. Inexpensive brands of access points and wireless routers like Linksys and Netgear are aimed mostly at individual consumers, while expensive brands like SonicWALL and Cisco are designed for businesses.