Toronto’s University Health Network is researching a cure for a common patient malady: boredom.

And while most hospitals already offer telephone and cable TV access, the UHN, which comprises the Princess Margaret, the Toronto

General and Toronto Western hospitals, is looking to add to the mix with some form of Internet access.

Before that happens, though, the organization will have to decide how and where to provide access, as well as who will do it — and who will pay for it.

“”We’re not very far down the road, really,”” said Ken Lawrence, manager of networks and telephony for the UHN. “”We’re just looking at options and discussing them. Internet access is one of the many things that we’re doing to try to improve the patient experience, so we’re looking at what we can do — and what can we afford to do — and this is one thing that some people think patients really want.””

Lawrence said the UHN has been in discussions with SpotNik, which has set up hotspots, or public wireless Internet access areas at various cafes and hotels in Canada. The UHN is looking at options such as providing Net access using the patient TV system, as well as putting in kiosks with touch-screen devices in public areas or lounges.

“”That may be the ideal because doing anything else is going to require the patient to bring his PC or laptop,”” said Lawrence. “”I don’t know how secure that is. We tell patients not to bring their valuables in, but some people insist on bringing their laptops.””

Lawrence said although all options are still on the table, wireless is a much more likely choice than wired.

“”Wired wouldn’t be very functional,”” he said. “”If we’re looking at targeting patients we would have to wire every single patient room. Typically in a hospital just having cable is expensive.””

The only way a wired solution would work would be to outsource it to a provider who would set up kiosks in public areas.

Wireless would allow for more flexibility at a lower cost, but it, too, has its considerations, he explained. For example, he said, “”There are areas where you can’t do wireless, such as around radiation equipment. At Princess Margaret (hospital) where we’re doing radiation therapy there are thick lead-lined walls, so you can’t do wireless there.””

In order to provide access to both patients and health care staff, the hospital would have to provide the service over virtual private LANs in order to keep them separate from each other.

Paul King, director of technology at Regina-based Hospitality Network, said despite some of the challenges, wireless is the best choice for hospitals.

The Hospitality Network, which recently announced a partnership with WiFi hotspot provider FatPort Corp., of Vancouver, bills itself as a broadband interactive television and telephone service provider focusing on communications and entertainment to the health care industry in Canada.

The two companies are in talks with various hospitals, said King, and hope to have a customer signed on and operational by the end of this year — a goal he admits might be overly optimistic.

“”When we looked at a wireless service it gave us a quick way to address all of the market,”” said King. “”It has the lowest capital cost and causes the least disruption to the hospital. And with FatPort as a partner the billing back end is there. No matter how you decide to do it, there’s always the issue of how you are going to bill and collect.””

Under the Hospitality Network/FatPort model, the team would set up the system and the hospital would offer it to patients on a per-day rate, the same way as cable TV service is offered now.

And while security of information, particularly for a hospital, is paramount, wireless poses no risk, said FatPort marketing manager Malcolm McDonald.

“”If it’s in a hospital it’s usually protected by a VPN,”” he said. “”What that means is that though someone driving by could see traffic between my laptop and the network, it’s garbage. What they’re seeing is very heavily encrypted garbage if they’re seeing it at all.””

Whether there is sufficient demand for Internet access to pay for itself at hospitals is another story, however.

The UHN’s Lawrence is not convinced.

“”We don’t get that many requests for an analogue phone line so patients can dial out,”” he said. “”That’s an alternative people have now, and we don’t get many requests, so I’m not sure how big a penetration we’re going to get with patients and the Net.””

The lack of demand, he said, may be because the UHN tends to get “”the sickest of the sick,”” whereas other hospitals where people are in for a few days of testing might see a higher demand.

King, however, said there is a demand for Internet access at hospitals.

“”I think hospitals face some pressure from particular patients,”” he said. “”If you’re tied up in hospital for four days unexpectedly and you have no access to the Net and you have no way of continuing to try to do your job, you could create quite a stir.

“”One of the hospitals told us a patient had a phone company install an ADSL line in his hospital room, without the hospital’s knowledge.””

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