Roger Sands, Wyebot

Optimizing Wireless Networks in Nursing Homes and Care Communities

By Roger Sands
Roger Sands, Wyebot

Networks enable the use of critical resources, including telehealth services, medical IoT technology,and staff and personal devices. It is critical to have a reliable WiFi network to support these devices.

Even before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, wireless networks were becoming a bigger part of nursing homes and long-term care communities. These networks provide support for a number of critical resources, including medical IoT devices, staff devices and personal devices, and since the pandemic, facilities have seen an even greater reliance on these networks. As many nursing homes and communities limit in-person visits for the safety and health of residents, there has been an influx of personal devices as residents search for ways to stay connected with families and friends. In addition, telehealth and telemedicine services have increased so that residents can receive necessary care without having to travel to a medical facility. Without wireless networks, the hundreds or thousands of personal and medical devices used to provide these services would not work. Therefore, rather than simply a nice-to-have addition, it is absolutely crucial that facilities have a reliable WiFi network.

That network must be dependable, fast and secure. In other words, it must be optimized, providing the highest quality of service possible at all times, now and into the future. This article provides tips on how to set-up and maintain an optimized network.

Register for the 2nd Annual Legacy Medical Device Cybersecurity Conference | A Virtual Event | September 22–23, 2020 Perform a Site Survey

If you’re extending wireless coverage to any new areas, or if your wireless network has changed significantly since it was first installed, it can be worth conducting a wireless site survey. These surveys take in a number of factors, including the size and layout of buildings that need WiFi coverage, the number of devices that will connect to the network, and any possible interference. They then allow network engineers to design a network that will provide the strongest coverage for each unique situation.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for optimizing wireless networks, which is why a site survey is a worthwhile investment. Keep in mind though that wireless networks are dynamic, changing constantly as devices are added or removed, as staff and residents move throughout a building, and as facilities and campuses are renovated. After an initial site survey results in a network design, it is beneficial to work with an AI-based analytics solution for constant network monitoring. These solutions can alert IT to any changes that have degraded network performance since the site survey, allowing for real-time resolution.

Maintain Complete Visibility

Nursing homes and long-term care communities’ wireless networks must support a vast array of devices and technologies. This includes, but is not limited to:

Personal Devices

  • Phones, laptops and tablets
  • Smart watches
  • Personal assistants, such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa

Medical Devices

  • Any technologies needed for telehealth and telemedicine
  • Location trackers on medical devices or drug carts
  • Location trackers for residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia
  • Pressure sensors on beds, chairs and floors

Building Devices

  • Sensors on windows or doors that give an alert when they are opened
  • Thermostats
  • Lighting sensors
  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
  • Motion sensors

These devices can quickly number in the hundreds or thousands, and optimizing the network, and ensuring that each device is working as it should, requires complete network visibility. However, if IT doesn’t have insight into the health and performance of every piece of the wireless ecosystem, it is impossible to correctly identify and resolve issues.

The most efficient way to keep “eyes” on the network at all times is to work with an AI-based analytics solution. Depending on the tool chosen, these solutions can use fingerprinting and profiling capabilities to uniquely identify every connected device (including the AP infrastructure), and can learn to recognize normal network behavior. If that behavior changes for any reason—for example, because of an attempted network attack or because of interoperability issues after new devices are added—the analytics solution can immediately alert IT.

Provide Remote Access

Not all nursing home and long-term care communities have an IT staff permanently onsite. Even for those that do, instances still arise that prevent IT from being on-premise, such as a natural disaster or a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, it is vital that IT teams have remote access to the network in order to troubleshoot any and all issues.

The remote access capability should allow IT to monitor and manage the network and connected devices. Being able to review network performance from any location saves IT from having to travel to a site to troubleshoot, resulting in quicker Mean-Time-to-Resolution (MTTR) and a more optimized wireless network.

Schedule Consistent Network Testing

Wireless networks are dynamic and constantly changing, and every time a device is added, disconnected or upgraded, or as residents and staff move throughout a building, the network changes. In order to proactively monitor these changes and maintain network optimization, facilities should schedule network tests to run every hour, day, or week. To do so, IT can work with an automated testing solution.

Look for a solution that connects to the network as a client device, which will ensure that the results accurately portray the experience of all staff and residents. The solution should automatically alert IT to any failed tests; some solutions will also identify the root cause of the failure and include actionable insights for a faster resolution.

A few common network tests include:

  • Speedtest
  • Pingtest
  • Server test
  • Application test
  • Port/Security test

Review Historical Analytics

There are two pieces needed for network optimization: Real-time analytics and historical analytics. Real-time analytics provide IT with the information needed to understand how the network is performing at any given moment. This enables the near-immediate resolution of issues, as IT can be alerted when the issue occurs, rather than waiting for users to report a problem after the fact. Network testing and complete visibility are two ways to achieve real-time analytics.

The second piece, historical analytics, is just as important. Reviewing historical data from the past day, week, month or even year reveals how network usage and performance have changed over time, and this is invaluable for efficient budget and capacity planning. With historical analytics, IT can determine what infrastructure needs to be upgraded when, in order to keep the network optimized into the future. These analytics answer questions, including:

  • Are APs or servers exhibiting signs of degraded performance?
  • Is the network reaching maximum capacity?
  • How has airtime utilization changed over the past few months?
  • Is high-traffic causing issues in certain rooms or buildings, or at certain times?

Ensure Security

It is paramount that the wireless network be as secure as possible, and this protects the safety of residents and staff, preventing malicious users from consuming the network bandwidth, or from stealing Personally Identifiable Information (PII). The tips mentioned in this article will support strong network security. Complete visibility enables IT to know immediately if someone unauthorized is attempting to gain access, and testing solutions that perform a security audit and/or test port security can alert IT to any potential holes in network security before a malicious user finds them. Additionally, with historical analytics, IT can spot any degrading infrastructure and upgrade it proactively to keep the network optimized and safe.

Additional security steps could include the use of:

  • Role-Based Access Controls (RBAC)
  • WPA2 or WPA3 encryption
  • Firewalls
  • Intrusion detection and prevention systems

Optimize Critical Wireless Networks

With more personal and medical devices added to facilities every day, the wireless network provides an invaluable resource. Whether monitoring residents’ safety, promoting care coordination, or supporting contact with loved ones, residents and staff depend on these networks, so optimizing them now ensures they will be effective in the future.

About The Author

Roger Sands, Wyebot