Hospital chain boosts indoor cellular with distributed antenna system

With terrible indoor cellular coverage impeding its ability to support mobile users, the hospital chain Baptist Healthcare System adopted a distributed antenna system from ADC. The system improved patient care at its hospitals and its ability to compete for physicians.

To support better mobile communication among its independently contracted physicians, Baptist Healthcare System Inc. has adopted an indoor distributed antenna system from ADC Telecommunications Inc.

Baptist Healthcare, a chain of five hospitals in Kentucky, does not employ its doctors. Like most hospitals in Kentucky, its physicians are independent contractors who can practice medicine at multiple hospitals.

"It adds a lot of competition between hospitals for physicians," said Jim Laval, manager of corporate IT at Louisville, Ky.-based Baptist Healthcare. "So there's a lot of pressure to lure physicians away from one facility over to yours. And of course, the physicians play us off on that as well. They say, 'well so and so hospital has this. Can you get me this?'"

Supporting mobile communications for the several thousand physicians who work in Baptist Healthcare's five hospitals was a priority not only for attracting the best doctors, but also for improving the quality of patient care.

"Several years ago there was a desire to have push-to-talk communication so physicians and anesthesiologists could be in very quick communication in the eventuality that a patient had issues after coming out of surgery," he said. "And the only phone service at that time that had that ability was Nextel. So we purchased about 20 to 25 Nextel phones for physicians to use. But we quickly ran into coverage problems. While certain parts of the OR and the recovery areas were fine, when you got to some other areas of the hospital the communication just dropped altogether."

Laval met with Nextel Communications Inc. to discuss the installation of an in-building repeater service, but the technology Nextel proposed was too expensive and would be proprietary. No other carrier networks would run on it. Given that the company's physicians were all independent and owned their own smartphones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), a single-carrier solution was unacceptable.

"That's what really prompted us to start looking at other options," he said. "And over a six- to eight-month period of reviewing different providers in this space and talking to other healthcare providers that had deployed this, we chose LGC."

Laval installed an InterReach Fusion distributed antenna system from LGC Wireless, a subsidiary of ADC Telecommunications, in Baptist Hospital East in Louisville in 2005. The system supports Sprint/Nextel, AT&T and Verizon. This year he's installed it in his other four hospitals and he plans to install another system in a surgical outpatient facility under construction in Louisville. After polling doctors about the mobile carriers they use, Laval determined that these other distributed antenna systems would support only Verizon and AT&T.

"The cost to add Nextel into the antenna systems was so high we really needed to have a solid business case for it," he said. "The number of doctors who use Nextel was such a small percentage that it prompted us not to put it in. We have the ability to upgrade that if things change. If Sprint/Nextel comes out with an iPhone killer, we can easily add them into the existing infrastructure."

Laval said the LGC product's scalability was a key issue for him. Many companies could provide coverage up to a certain extent, but supporting a 300,000- or 400,000- square-foot facility put some competitors out of contention.

Improving the in-building cellular service within the hospitals has allowed Laval to roll out a new mobile application throughout the company. Horizon MobileCare Rounding, a health information system from McKesson Corp., is a browser-based application that allows physicians to access patient records and laboratory test results on their smartphones and PDAs.

"They can now [check medical records] from home or while walking down the hallways of our facilities," he said. "And given the fact that these are independent contractors, one thing we did not want to do was add an application onto these physicians' cell phones that would have to be supported by Baptist Healthcare."

Laval said the feedback he has gotten from users has been reassuring. "It's very comforting to get a lot of positive feedback from the physicians. A physician who has privileges at our hospital and a competitor's hospital loved what we have so much that he went to the administration of the hospital and told them about it. I ended up getting a phone call from one of our competitors asking, 'Can you tell us a little bit about what you deployed?'"

Michael Finneran, president of dBrn Associates Inc., said that in 70% of cases, mobile carriers usually pick up the cost of indoor distributed antenna systems. They are usually responding to complaints from customers who are threatening to cancel their contracts. However, when a carrier install this technology, it's usually proprietary to the carrier's network.

Finneran said an organization that has little control over the carrier its employees or users choose often has to install the system itself and design it to work with multiple carriers' networks. Many large hotels and casinos, for instance, will install such systems since their guests will be using every network available.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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