Cell phone coverage at new MUHC will be poor

Martine AlfonsoMONTREAL – Reception for mobile devices will be spotty inside the new MUHC super-hospital when it opens next month and won’t be fully operational for some time, CBC News is reporting.

The construction materials used to build the hospital block the signal, according to Martine Alfonso (pictured), associate executive director of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Alfonso is also in charge of information services for the McGill University Health Centre.

“If you went today, you would not be able to use your phone everywhere,” she said. “In the new [hospital], there are areas where someone who has a pager would not get the signal.”

Although cell phones are a way of life now, the MUHC didn’t foresee a lack of cellular reception as an issue when they first started planning the project, Alfonso said.

“When we started this project years ago, cellular phones were not allowed in hospitals. So, it wasn’t the first issue that was looked at. But it’s now a tool that everyone uses and even clinical teams use them to work with patients,” Alfonso added.

The problem is related to the materials used for the hospital to be awarded the LEED Silver Certification for energy and environmentally conscious design.

“There is a film on the windows where you would expect the wavelength or signal to be well received. Even close to a window it’s not because of the quality of the construction,” said Alfonso.

To deal with isolated spots of poor coverage, a network of small antennas known as a distributed antenna system (DAS) will be installed throughout the building to boost signal strength.

Alfonso says clinical areas including critical and ambulatory care, ERs and inpatient units are the first priority for installation. The signal will be gradually improved week by week, but mobile reception in the entire building won’t be available until Fall 2015.

While the system is being installed, pagers will be distributed to physicians and medical personnel who normally receive pages through their cell phones.

Before the DAS is fully deployed, the MUHC has asked its provider to install 2 antennas on the roof to allow pagers to function.

The building will be fully covered by Wi-Fi service. Messaging services including BlackBerry’s BBM and Apple’s iMessage will work, as will V-sign, the MUHC-designed app which allows doctors to access patient files on their smartphone or tablet.

Medical personnel will also have access to 600 portable Wi-Fi phones to carry with them if they are on the move in the hospital.

Alfonso says the delay in cellular coverage shouldn’t have an impact on clinical care. While some doctors have incorporated cell phones into their practice, the hospital has many other ways of relaying communication, Alfonso said.

“Our system is not based on the use of people’s individual personal phones.”

One doctor, who declined to be identified, said medical personnel use them for everything from touching base with residents, to consulting colleagues on a patient file or staying in touch with a large team. The doctor said he was pleased the MUHC realizes the lack of cellular reception is an issue, and was satisfied with the plan to address it.

Memos are currently being distributed to staff to let them know about the issues around cellular reception at the Glen site and they are also warned about the problem when they receive their orientation tour of the hospital, Alfonso says.

A phone for making local calls will be available in every one of the MUHC’s 500 single-patient rooms.

The co-chair of the MUHC’s Patients’ Committee, Mario Di Carlo says he was surprised the MUHC did not forsee the problem sooner, adding it could cause some inconveniences for patients’ family members in some areas of the hospital.

“It feels a bit strange,” said Di Carlo. “You would figure this would be done right from the outset. The basic technology for cell phones is understood. This is not something new.”

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