Hospital CIOs Weigh 5G as Digitized Medicine Pushes Wi-Fi to Its Limits

The Wall Street Journal

By Isabelle Bousquette

February 7, 2024

A profusion of connected devices and data-intensive processes in healthcare is forcing hospital CIOs to evaluate alternatives to their existing Wi-Fi networks, which are pushing ever closer to their limits.

For years, hospitals have relied on Wi-Fi, where connectivity depends on the amount and strategic placement of networking hardware. It’s a setup chief information officers say can be difficult to scale at the pace of galloping bandwidth demands.

Taking a page from newly automated warehouses and factories, some hospital CIOs are testing and evaluating private networks that run on high-speed 5G wireless cellular technology and other hybrid private-public 5G systems, which they say could be expanded more quickly across hospital campuses than traditional Wi-Fi.

“Speed and scalability of a network is going to become more demanding with new technologies that are emerging,” said Scott Arnold, chief digital and innovation officer at Tampa General Hospital. Specifically, he called out the amount of extended reality and virtual reality increasingly being used in teaching, including surgical training.

The benefits of private 5G networks, which rely on signals from cellular sites, could be likened to those of cloud computing, Arnold said. Rather than maintaining its own physical Wi-Fi infrastructure, the hospital would outsource connectivity to a major carrier, and be able to scale up and down quickly based on demand, he said.

“Our Wi-Fi network is limited by the amount of circuits that we purchase,” Arnold said, adding that getting that physical hardware in place can have long lead times. 

While Wi-Fi has thus far held up, evolving medical technology could change that. Medical records are increasingly becoming electronic and accessed by professionals via laptops and iPads as they move around the hospital. A growing number of medical devices, such as intravenous pumps, are internet-connected. And bandwidth-intensive emerging technology, such as virtual and augmented reality as well as new applications of artificial intelligence, are slowly making their way into hospitals.

Tampa General is currently building a new pavilion, slated to open in 2027. Arnold is considering whether a private 5G network, rather than Wi-Fi, should be its primary point of connection, he said. Traditional Wi-Fi will still be installed as a backup in any case, he added.

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