Hospital wifi. Why patients aren’t taking their tablets

By: Vicky Sargent @vickysargent
Published: Thursday, October 9, 2014 - 14:33 GMT Jump to Comments

There are many reasons given by hospitals for not making wifi available, whether for staff or patients. None of them stand up to proper examination.

Many hospitals don't want their patients to take their tablets. I mean, of course, iPads, Kindles and the like rather than the contents of the drugs trolley. And why won’t most patients be taking these devices along to distract them during the inevitable stress, pain and boredom of their hospital stay?

The main reason is that they are still unlikely to be able to connect to wifi when they get there. Despite the fact that you can get access to free wifi almost everywhere else these days, the majority of the UK’s 2300 hospitals do not even provide a paid-for version of this facility.

Things are better than they used to be though, according to John Popham, who started a campaign for free hospital wifi in 2010. With a sick daughter in and out of hospital, lack of wi-fi was more than a frustration for the family, as she missed out on a key facility to help her keep up with school work.

Unless lucky enough to be in one of the minority hospitals that have opted for patient-accessible wifi, connection to the outside world is likely to be through a bedside terminal providing telephone, TV, video and internet. Over the last few years, many hospitals have had these installed free of charge by suppliers like Hospedia, with a view to making their money back from patients paying hotel-like charges for a range of entertainment, internet and telephone packages.

This might have made sense before the technology galloped on, providing the vast majority of people with affordable smart phones or other low-cost devices able to access the internet and with it email, social media and free - or nearly free - on-demand video content.

Consequently, the business model for the bedside terminal is failing, and hospitals and their patients are left with an expensive facility almost no one uses. According to John Popham, ‘you could tell who had the telly on because other patients would be crowded round their bed’ adding that ‘the service wasn’t very satisfactory when you did pay for it - internet access was always a real struggle.’

Contracts covering these terminals are one of many reasons hospital managers can find to block calls for wifi. Others include the old chestnut ‘security concerns’, and, more understandably, cost.

Nobody knows the full picture about the number of hospitals that do provide patient wifi, because each NHS Trust makes its own decisions about these things. However, a few people have been trying to find out. Malcolm Teague, NHS-HE Coordinator for the education IT network Janet, has recently visited the websites of every Trust listed on NHS Choices to search for references to patient wifi. He came up with just over 100, a list published in September on the NHS Networks website.

Teague’s figure is likely to be an underestimate, since hospital websites are notorious for not publishing information - like access to wifi - that is really important for patients (parking arrangements being another key issue inadequately covered on many hospital sites).

The About My Hospital website, an output of the nhshackday movement, where anyone can add to the information already gathered about wifi and parking arrangements, lists 187 sites known to have wifi. This may include wifi for staff (another contentious issue) as well as patients.

The hospitals that have led the way on patient wifi recognise the real benefits it can bring for patient wellbeing, including being able to talk to friends and family on skype, email or social media, being able to access free-of-charge entertainment, and being able to keep in touch with work, the latter being particularly useful for patients attending day clinics or parents and carers visiting or accompanying patients.

Derriford Hospital, part of Plymouth Hospitals Trust, has been offering free wifi since 2013 through WiFi SPARK, a ‘hot-spot’ service, to help patients ‘stay connected with life outside hospital’. The move was prompted by hospital staff, who told management it would make a real difference for patients. Users can send and receive email and surf the internet on their own devices in permitted areas of the hospital, including patient rooms, the main lobby, and the restaurant.

Prompted by consultant paediatrician Sebastian Yuen, George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton has introduced free wifi more recently. This came about as part of an NHS Change Day pledge, after Yuen shadowed the family of one of his patients to better understand the hospital experience of his patients and their families.

Patients and their carers are not the only potential beneficiaries of free wifi. According to Marcus Baw, a locum GP who is a director of OpenGPSoC, a non-profit organisation advocating open source IT in the NHS, clinical staff need better access to the internet when working on wards.

For example, the British National Formulary, widely used to support the selection and clinical use of medicines, is available online, and easy access via a doctor’s own tablet or phone would save much time. In addition, as the decision-support and other ‘apps’ being encouraged by NHS England activity become available, doctors will want to be able access and use these at the bedside.

‘The current situation is that PCs with internet access may be available, but are often overcrowded, underpowered, and login times can be slow. In many care settings like A&E, the desktop PCs are not near the patients, so point of care information retrieval is not feasible.’

There are many reasons hospitals have not moved faster on this issue, including costs and security concerns, says Baw, but many of the arguments used not to make wifi available, whether for staff or patients, are spurious and do not stand up to proper examination.

OpenGPSoC is among a group of organisations currently conducting a survey into the availability of wifi access to frontline NHS staff. This repeats an exercise first carried out in 2013, which revealed that only 22% of NHS staff had access to free WiFi.

‘The results of our 2013 survey had a big impact on NHS IT decision makers,’ says Marcus Baw, ‘showing them the importance of free wifi and the current low levels of provision. We hope that the announcement of this year’s results - at the EHI Live event in early November – will provide further evidence to keep up the momentum of our campaign.’


Information about John Popham’s free wifi for hospitals campaign

Malcolm Teague’s list of hospitals with patient wifi


OpenGPSoc survey on wifi access (NHS staff please complete asap)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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