Like just about everyone working in Vancouver’s technology sector, Chris Ryan admits he’s plugged in and online in one way or another most of the hours that he’s awake.
That need to stay connected—which so many young professionals share today—made things especially stressful, Ryan recalled, when his father had an extended stay at Vancouver General Hospital earlier this year.
“I try to go every day or two, but it’s very difficult because I’m so busy,” he said in a phone interview. “I thought, ‘If I could just sit there for an hour and do a bit of work, that might be helpful to him, just me sitting there.’ ”
Ryan noted that with more business and web services moving to the cloud, it’s easier than ever for people to work from just about anywhere, provided there’s access to wireless Internet. But in most Vancouver hospitals, there isn’t.
A survey of Lower Mainland health facilities confirmed that the region’s larger hospitals are woefully lagging behind patients’ and family members’ demands for Wi-Fi.
Once-ubiquitous signs banning the use of cellphones have begun to disappear from hospitals. And data plans for mobile devices are cheaper than they once were. But even 4G networks remain slow compared to Wi-Fi, and a few hours on Netflix can exceed a cellphone’s data-plan limit pretty quickly. In addition, while some hospitals host a combination of computer terminals and Wi-Fi hot spots, access can be difficult or impossible for patients who lack mobility.
Brian Kerr chairs the board of directors for the Vancouver chapter of Cystic Fibrosis Canada. He told the Straight that the benefits of providing patients with Wi-Fi are especially evident in terms of families struggling with chronic diseases.
“When you have a child with CF, many of them, they have to travel from somewhere like Kamloops to Vancouver, and the stays can be anywhere from 17 days to even longer,” he said in a phone interview. “What happens to their schooling?”
Kerr noted that some CF wards have computer terminals. But infections are not uncommon and isolation requirements can complicate access. In those tricky situations, Kerr said, Wi-Fi can help children keep up with their schoolwork and even keep in touch with their teachers.
Staff with Metro Vancouver’s major health-care providers report that Wi-Fi is coming, but it’s not here yet.
Barry Rivelis is chief information officer for the Provincial Health Services Authority, which provides technology services for B.C. Children’s Hospital; Vancouver Coastal Health facilities, including VGH; and Providence Health Care locations such as St. Paul’s Hospital and Mount Saint Joseph Hospital.
In a phone interview, Rivelis told the Straight that those facilities provide near-blanket Wi-Fi coverage for doctors and other service providers. But he conceded that there’s still a ways to go before patients enjoy the same level of access.
“We are looking at a ubiquitous patient service that we can provide throughout our facilities, and that is certainly a priority that we’re evaluating,” Rivelis said. “But it’s done in the context of our broader Wi-Fi needs, and the priority is on the provider, to make sure that they have access. And then if we can concurrently provide a patient service, that is something that we are looking at.”
For now, he continued, that means patients have computer terminals where they’re provided, cellular-network access, and Wi-Fi hot spots in locations such as coffee shops. (Some Children’s wards have coverage.)
Health facilities in the suburbs are doing a bit better. Speaking for the Fraser Health Authority, which runs the largest hospitals in Surrey, Burnaby, New Westminster, Delta, and Abbotsford, spokesperson Tasleem Juma told the Straight that some locations already provide Wi-Fi for patients, and more are on the way.
“Royal Columbian Hospital [in New Westminster] and Jim Pattison Outpatient Care and Surgery Centre [in Surrey] have Wi-Fi for patients, and at Burnaby Hospital they can use the computers in the resource library,” she said. “And now, with new buildings coming, Wi-Fi is part of those planning processes.” She pointed to patient Wi-Fi at the new critical-care tower at Surrey Memorial as the latest example.
Juma added that patients are telling Fraser Health that Wi-Fi is about staying in touch. “It’s things like checking email, Facebook, and their Twitter accounts,” she said. “Or, for example, in our maternal units, Skype and FaceTime for people who want to share news of their newborns. It’s about staying connected.”
Kerr similarly noted that the benefits of Wi-Fi extend beyond education to areas that might seem trivial but are actually just as important. It can help children in isolation units stay connected with other kids who are in the same situation, he explained.
“A number of them, they’re using Facebook and Twitter to communicate with each other,” Kerr said. “But like any other resource, you have to have access. And therein lies the problem. If you’re in a remote area where you live or you’re down here in Vancouver, it’s a matter of having those resources put into place.”