Will free public wifi improve the NHS?

By Alex Walter, Managing Partner and O2 public sector champion, Healthcare

Last week my young son was sent to hospital by an out-of-hours GP. Luckily his ailment was relatively minor, so he was justifiably low on their priority list. However, of the 14 hours he spent there, more than half of it was spent waiting to be discharged.

My wife kept me posted on progress for much of the night but, as is often the case with large, modern hospital buildings, she had excellent coverage at the edges of the building but little in the heart of it. Constantly searching for a stronger signal, her smartphone battery soon went flat, and I was left in the dark.

A key enabler for staff and patients

This experience has led me to think about the positive impact the government’s initiative for free wifi across the NHS estate will have. If there had been fast, free public wifi in that hospital last week, my family’s experience could have been transformed:

  • Clinical staff – widely reputed to spend up to 70% of their time doing paper-based or desk-based administration1 – could have used it (with an additional layer of security) to access and update information in real time at the bedside, speeding up processes and increasing patient-facing time
  • The hospital could have given my wife progress updates, hospital maps, patient feedback surveys and other relevant information while she waited
  • My son could have played his favourite online games or watched his favourite programmes
  • Albeit remotely, I could have been so much more involved.

It’s not just me who feels this way. According to my wife every comment posted on the feedback board, whether good or bad, included a request for wifi in the ward. According to Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, National Medical Director for NHS England, junior doctors, too, have cited wifi as the single change in hospitals that would make their jobs easier1. Wifi appears to be a key enabler both for patients and healthcare professionals.

Be wary of the implementation pitfalls

Implementing free, public wifi across the NHS will be transformational, but not without challenges:

  • Any solution relying on username/password authentication runs the risk of man-in-the-middle security attacks, where someone uses a portable wifi hotspot and fake landing page to gather patient information illicitly
  • Hospitals, in particular, are restricted by existing contracts with bedside TV providers, who often mandate that public wifi services must block video streaming in wards
  • In-house management of a public access wifi is complicated by the need for content control and compliance with legislation, e.g. regarding the provision of data for police investigations.

Navigating this landscape can be tricky. We had first-hand experience of this back when we launched our first O2 Wifi service2 in a hospital. Even though we have a well-established wifi service, with over 20 million users, steering around issues such as data protection, localised blocking of video streaming and resilience can be challenging. But, as the rollout showed, it’s achievable – and worthwhile.

The final hurdle is the funding model. Many specialist public access wifi service providers rely on charging end users, either on a time-limited and/or bandwidth-limited basis and, in the 15 or so years that public wifi services have existed, none of the four main providers have been able to make a long-term success of funding a service via advertising or sponsorship. For a service to be entirely free for end users the venue must fund it; therefore NHS England has been wise in setting aside central budget to fund free public wifi across the estate.

It will be worth it

My son’s experience is still fresh in my mind. For the sake of clinical staff and patients alike, I look forward to a time when wifi is freely available to all across the NHS estate. It will transform working practices and improve productivity but, more importantly, it will put people (and patients) first.

If you’d like to share your views on this subject, please feel free to contact me @Alex_Walter_O2 or on 07786 333 444. And you can find out more about O2’s work in the Healthcare sector on our website.

 

1 http://careers.bmj.com/careers/advice/Free_wi-fi_could_tackle_the_70%2525_of_junior_doctors%E2%80%99_time_spent_on_admin,_says_online_entrepreneur

2 You can learn more about O2 Wifi here: www.o2Wifi.co.uk or http://www.o2.co.uk/enterprise/services/connectivity/o2-Wifi