Toronto General brings wireless phones into the OR

To ease communications between staff Toronto General Hospital has put a wireless telephone system on call.

Doctors, nurses and support staff have been given NetLink wireless telephones. Rather than responding to pages and then

picking up a land line in the hospital, they can be reached directly.

The project has been in the works for almost two years, according David Eagan, architect for infrastructure development and project manager. The hospital began evaluating solutions for its clinical in-patient building — which opened in July — in the fall of 2001. Trials began in February and March of this year, but the project was delayed while hospital staff dealt with the more serious problem of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The SARS crisis in Toronto is all but over and hospital staff are now enjoying improved communication between themselves and with patients.

“”It allows the in-patient areas — and the operating room, actually — to change their procedures so any time there’s a request they can communicate in real time using these phones,”” said Eagan.

Speed is of the essence, he added, since every minute an operating room is not in use costs the hospital $127. With the phone system, once an operating room has been cleaned and prepared, a porter can be notified immediately to bring in the next patient.

The Nextlink wireless phones are based on the 802.11b or WiFi protocol. “”It acts like a WiFi client on the network, but it does the conversion from regular voice to IP packets and sends it up over the wireless LAN. It comes out over the other end into a gateway that does the conversion back to regular telephony to connect back to the PBX (private branch exchange),”” explained Ben Guderian, director of marketing for SpectraLink Corp., the company that manufactures the phones.

The WiFi network is comprised of Cisco Systems equipment for the access points, L.Comm Inc. antennae and Globestar integrating software.

The Nextlink phones are plugged into that network and can also be used as text messaging devices and to access the nurse call system. “”Any time patients request service by pulling one of their cords, that message is relayed to a nurse that’s assigned to that room,”” said Eagan. “”By hitting a key, they’re able to talk to that patient and find out what’s going on right away.””

A nurse is assigned to four different rooms for the duration of their shift, he added. “”Any time any kind of alert happens in one of those rooms, that nurse is automatically alerted within about a second.

“” In the past, they would page nurses or try to use an overhead to get a hold of them. Often, all you’re doing is asking them to call back. You’re not giving the nurse intelligent information about what to do. It makes it much quicker for them and they waste very little time in finding out what’s going on.””

A single WiFi access point can support 12 calls simultaneously, according to Guderian. It’s unlikely that 12 people would be using the same point at the same time, but SpectraLink makes voice prioritizer software to ensure that network priority is given to voice rather than data. “”That’s the one other wrinkle that’s kind of critical for carrying voice over the wireless networks — making sure that voice packets don’t get delayed,”” he said.

In the event that anything goes wrong, hospital staff can still be reached via conventional pagers. The wireless phones are limited to hospital use, so any staff that are offsite but on-call are also contacted through conventional means.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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