VA kicks off Wi-Fi buy, plans national rollout

The Veterans Affairs Department kicked off a procurement to install a patient Wi-Fi system in its Augusta, Ga., hospital and eventually plans to install patient wireless systems in all 152 hospitals nationwide, a regional VA information technology official told Nextgov.

Michael Lay, director of service delivery and engineering for VA hospitals in the South and parts of the Midwest, said the department plans to release a request for proposals for a national patient Wi-Fi system later this year, but the Augusta hospital did not want to wait and put out its solicitation Jan. 5, with responses from vendors due Feb. 17. The Augusta hospital wants its Wi-Fi system turned on 90 days after contract award.

Roger Baker, VA's chief information officer, said in a June 2010 interview with Nextgov that he considered various business models to pay for Wi-Fi systems, including advertising-funded installation and operation or pay-as-you-go plans. Lay said VA now considers patient Wi-Fi service on a par with the telephone and television service the department provides patients, a point reinforced in the language of the Augusta contract documents.

The statement of work for the Augusta patient Wi-Fi system said, "VA recognizes that its patient population and family members use the Internet as a means of both researching information as well as remaining in communication with friends and family members on a near-constant basis. As a result, it is our desire to provide these patients and their family members' access to the Internet to allow them to continue their communication."

VA currently has wireless networks in all its hospitals but the patient Wi-Fi systems will operate as separate networks. The medical Wi-Fi networks have 400 to 500 access points to provide coverage for applications such as a medication system tied to bar code readers and pharmacy networks that ensure patients receive the right medications in the correct dose at the correct time. Lay said the patient Wi-Fi system will not need as many access points. The number of access points will vary depending on a hospital's size.

In a related development, the Camp Pendleton, Calif., naval hospital plans to include patient Wi-Fi service through a contract that also will provide cable-television service in the 64-bed, 500,000-square-foot facility, making it one the few hospitals operated by the Military Health System to offer wireless Internet access to patients.

VA and the Military Health System lag private hospitals in providing Wi-Fi service to patients. Scripps Health, which operates six hospitals in the San Diego area, was the first health care organization to provide patient Wi-Fi in 2003. Since then, more than 300 private U.S. hospitals and another 400 worldwide offer the service.