How Free Wi-Fi Can Transform the Patient Experience in the NHS

I'm often reminded that within the health IT sector we overlook some of the more simple opportunities to provide a better healthcare experience for both clinical staff and patients. A great example of this was the news that the NHS is investigating the feasibility of providing free Wi-Fi across its estate which it estimates will 'help reduce the administrative burden currently estimated to take up to 70 percent of a junior doctor's day'. I'll cover the often-talked about benefits to clinicians in a later blog but here I want to focus on how access to free Wi-Fi could impact the patient in a myriad of positive ways.

Today many of us see access to the internet via Wi-Fi just like any other utility. It's not something we think of too deeply but we expect it to be there, all day, every day. But access to Wi-Fi in an NHS hospital can either come at a price or is not available at all. The vision put forward by Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s National Director for Patients and Information, could truly revolutionise the continuum of care experience and fundamentally change the relationship between patient/family and hospital. I've highlighted five of the main benefits below:

1. Enhances Education

Clinicians will say that a better informed patient is more likely to buy in to their treatment plan. Traditionally an inpatient will be delivered updates on their condition verbally by a doctor 'doing the rounds' once or twice per day at the bedside. With the availability of free Wi-Fi in hospitals and the much-anticipated electronic patient access to all NHS funded services by 2020, I anticipate a patient being able to simply log-in to see real-time updates about their condition at any time of the day via their electronic health record. And Wi-Fi may offer opportunities to provide access to online educational material approved by the NHS too.  I would add a cautionary note here though around the differing levels of interpretation of medical data by clinicians and patients.

2. Connecting Families

A prolonged stay in hospital affects not just the patient but the wider family too. Free Wi-Fi changes what can sometimes be a lonely and isolated period for the patient by bringing the family 'to the bedside' outside of traditional visiting hours through technologies such as Skype or email. And those conversations may well include patient progress updates thus reducing the strain on nurses who, at times, provide updates over the telephone. Additionally, family will be able to spend more time visiting patients while still being able to work remotely using free Wi-Fi.

3. Future Wearables

As the Internet of Things in healthcare becomes more commonplace we're likely to see increasing examples of how wearable technology can be used to not only monitor patients in the home but in a clinical setting too. Tim Kelsey used the example of patients with diabetes, 1/5th of whom will have experienced an avoidable hypoglycaemic episode while in hospital. Using sensor technology connected to Wi-Fi will help minimise these incidents and ensure patients do not experience additional (and avoidable) complications during their stay in hospital. Again, the upside to the healthcare provider is a reduction in the cost of providing care.

4. Happier Patients

Talk to patients (young or old) that have spent an extended time in hospital and they will more often than not tell you that at times they felt a drop in morale due to having their regular routine significantly disrupted. By offering free Wi-Fi patients can use their own mobile devices to pull back and continue to enjoy some of those everyday activities that go a long way to making all of us happy. That might include watching a favourite TV programme, reading a daily newspaper or simply playing an online game. Being connected brings a sense of normality to what is undoubtedly a period of worry and concern, resulting in happier patients.

5. Reducing Readmissions

When we look at the team of people providing care for patients it’s easy to forget just how important family and friends are, albeit in a less formal way than clinicians. When it comes to reducing readmission my mind is drawn to the patient setting immediately after discharge from hospital where it’s likely that family and close friends will be primary carers when the patient returns home. I’m seeing a scenario whereby the patient and caregiver in a hospital connect to family members, using Skype via Wi-Fi for example, to talk through recovery and medication to help ease and increase the effectiveness of that transition from hospital to home. I believe this could have a significant impact on readmission rates in a very positive way.

Meeting Security Needs

Wi-Fi networks in a hospital setting will, of course, bring concerns around security, especially when we talk of accessing sensitive healthcare data. This should not stop progress though as there are innovative security safeguards created by Intel Security Group that can mitigate the risks associated with data transiting across both public and private cloud-based networks. And I envisage healthcare workers and patients will access separate Wi-Fi networks which offer enhanced levels of security to clinicians.

Vision to Reality

Currently there are more than 100 NHS hospitals providing Wi-Fi to patients, in some cases free and in others on a paid-for basis. What really needs to happen though to turn this vision of free Wi-Fi for all into a reality? There are obvious financial implications but I think there are great arguments for investment too, especially when you look at the clinical benefits and potential cost-savings. A robust and clear strategy for implementation and ongoing support will be vital to delivery and may well form part of the NHS feasibility study. I look forward to seeing the report and, hopefully, roll-out of free Wi-Fi across the NHS to provide an improved patient experience.

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Chris Gough is a lead solutions architect in the Intel Health & Life Sciences Group and a frequent blog contributor.

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