Hospital offers fee-based Net access

There’s limited range of activities available to the hospital-bound and bed-ridden, so adding one more can only be a welcome change.

The Toronto Grace Hospital, operated by the Salvation Army, is getting its patients online by giving them access, via NIC cards, to its network infrastructure.

The hospital installed wireless access through Lucent technology in February, when a patient asked if she could have access to the Internet while she was admitted. “We looked at it and decided we would give that patient access using the infrastructure of the hospital,” explains Winton Cape, director of information systems for Grace. “After we did that, we ended up with a product where we, as an IT department, are able to deliver an entirely new service to patients in the hospital.”

Cape hit upon the idea of turning the network his hospital had just purchased into a fee-based service to augment the otherwise charity-funded facility. For $15 a month, patients can rent a NIC card as long as they can supply a laptop computer.

“That allows them to hook into the third network layer, meaning they don’t really need any security,” says Cape. “Her laptop is not aware that there are file servers or e-mail addresses or what you have on your network; it’s just using it as an onramp to the Internet.”

The system will allow for up to 64 users, including hospital staff, but to keep network traffic to a minimum, Cape asks that online patients sign an agreement stating that they will not download files or streaming audio or video during office hours.

Only two people have used the network for Internet access, but the project is still only in pilot mode. Should it become necessary, explains Cape, more nodes can be added to the network at minimal cost.

Aside from being a potential revenue source for the hospital, albeit meagre at first, Internet access provides the patients another welcome distraction from hospital life. Grace is a chronic and palliative care facility, meaning patients often stay for months at a time. “It increases the quality of life for the patient,” says Cape.

If the service takes off, it could help to pay for the most recent infrastructure overhaul and any future upgrades. It will take time, though, since Grace is a relatively small hospital with 100 beds. “In a larger facility with a different client population, the return on (infrastructure) investment, I would venture to say, would be three to six months,” adds Cape.

There are other Canadian hospitals that offer some type of online access for patients, but, as far as Cape is aware, there aren’t any that have turned it into a fee-based service. The Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto (732 beds), provides access for the parents of its young patients in a resource centre on-site. There are monitored programs for the patients through Ability Online and the Starbright World Network which allows patients to talk to kids in other hospitals and play video games. The Starbright network operates in about 75 American hospitals and is starting to make its presence felt in Canada.

The comparatively gigantic Vancouver Hospital and Health Science Centre has 1,600 beds. The hospital is working on bringing online services to patients, but first has to update its Web site, which hasn’t been touched in two years.

For Cape, using a small hospital’s network to accommodate patients’ Internet needs was a no-brainer, but getting approval for a full service won’t be quite so smooth. There’s paperwork to fill out and red tape to cut first, says Cape, but he hopes to offer all his patients Web surfing while they convalesce by August.

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