Urgent message: The costs of and barriers to adding WiFi to an urgent care center are low and the benefits include a better patient experience and improved perception of wait times.

ALAN A. AYERS, MBA, MAcc, Experity

WiFi is now ubiquitous. Step into most any coffee house, theme restaurant, library, shopping mall or other service establishment and you’ll find that Internet access is readily available and usually free of charge. Many hospitals have also introduced WiFi as an amenity for patients and their guests in an effort to help them feel at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. This means that at the touch of a button, consumers can access the latest news, email, and social events through their smart phones and tablets. But while the rest of the business world moves into the “information age,” many urgent care centers remain “in the past” with their months-old magazines and static health messages. As patients come to expect the availability of WiFi in health care facilities,
offering WiFi at your urgent care center is a logical next step.

Public WiFi Improves the Patient Experience

When restaurants began to introduce free WiFi, they learned that customers would sit longer in their seats, order more drinks, or opt for dessert as they browsed their Facebook “walls,” finished their online games, or responded to one more email. By offering a place to “relax,” establishments with WiFi attracted more customers, their customers spent more money, their loyal customers returned more frequently, and their businesses experienced higher profits than non-connected competitors. Urgent care operators can learn from these observations.

The urgent care environment is inherently stressful. Patients are dealing with illness or injury, they’re uncomfortable, they’re away from work and personal activities, and friends and family members may be concerned. In today’s “on-demand” world, people are also generally impatient with waiting. Access to WiFi dramatically diminishes the stress of an urgent care encounter by allowing patients’ attention to be consumed by their own devices. In fact, providing free Wi- Fi facilitates activities that are already taking place.

According to a Blue Chip Patient Recruitment (BCPR) mHealth study, 61% of patients are reading their email, 49% are texting, and 47% are surfing the Internet in medical waiting rooms.1 When patients have some- thing to focus their attention, they’re less likely to disturb staff and to perceive wait times as being “long.”

Develop the Solution In-House or Use a Contractor?

Many urgent care centers resist implementing patient WiFi because they perceive it’s too expensive. The reality is that most medical offices already have an internal computer network, meaning much of the technical infrastructure is already in place. Ultimately, all that’s required is a router and an Internet Service Provider (ISP). A router is a small piece of equipment responsible for distributing (or routing) WiFi connections through the office and an ISP is the company that provides connectivity to the Inter- net—typically a phone or cable company. A good wire- less router—with some built-in security features—is available at any technology store for $200 or less.

However, “do-it-yourself” solutions allowing open, non-controlled access—particularly if over the same network that supports the center’s operations—can present a risk of hacking into the center’s applications, tie up bandwidth thus slowing down business systems, and can present legal risks if there is no agreement or acceptance to terms of Internet use. At the very least, the center should use a separate network and Internet connection for “guest” versus “employee” access. The more protections for the user and the center, the more complex the set-up required, usually exceeding the technical expertise of the center’s staff. To identify the best set- up for your center, start by answering the questions addressed  in  Table 1.


A good way to identify independent providers in your community is to ask for referrals from restaurants and other businesses you frequent. In addition, national serv- ice providers like www.privatewifi.com and AT&T can turn the center into a “hotspot”—a branded turnkey solution that includes installation, network management, reporting, and 24/7 customer and technical support.

Information Security Issues in Implementing Public WiFi

Both patients and providers have natural concerns regarding information security. Providers need to remain compliant with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards and patients need to know that their personal health information is secure. The most significant information security step  that can be taken is to physically separate the public or guest network from the internal network. Although that requires two separate but parallel systems, the result is effectively two separate “houses” for data storage—with the guest network being a shell containing very little information and the internal network being a fortress that contains practice management data.

In regard to the network itself, WPA or WPA2 (WiFi Protected Access) encryption protocols are standard on certified WiFi equipment, minimizing the chance that information will be intercepted. Perhaps more important of a deterrent is controlling network access via password protection (i.e. individual passwords for each patient, changing of default passwords on routers and servers, and password protection on the servers or routers).

Barriers to Offering Public WiFi

Offering public WiFi to patients presents very few technological challenges. Patients accessing the system must have adequate connection speed, as well as appropriate upload and download privileges. If patient WiFi is through a separate guest network, requiring patients to agree to “Terms of Service”—which typically appear on a splash page upon accessing the Internet—and outlining expectations for use of the service can curtail most legal issues. Typical conditions of use include (but are not limited to):

  • Internet is for personal use only while a patient or visitor to the attempts to break security, tamper with the system or access secure information are strictly
  • Internet may not be used for any illegal activity including hacking into other systems, violating intellectual property rights (downloading of pirated or copyrighted materials), or distribution of spam, viruses or
  • User will not access or display any material that may be considered offensive, lewd, pornographic, violent, threatening, hateful, or otherwise objectionable.
  • User consents to having all Internet activity monitored and recorded by the center, which may be used to ensure compliance with the Terms of Service, applicable law, and in protection of the center’s rights, property and

In addition to the Terms of Service, users should also be presented with a Disclaimer, Limitation of Liability, and Indemnity Clause—which basically state use of the Internet is subject to availability, is at the user’s own risk, that the center takes no responsibility for activities that occur while online (such as incomplete financial trans- actions or risks the user’s computer will be hacked or infected with a virus), and that the user will hold the center harmless from any claim arising from using the WiFi. Samples of these agreements can be found on the websites of any public WiFi provider.

Concerns that patients will access or display inappropriate materials—such as pornography—can be con- trolled by applying a Web filter that blocks access to sites deemed inappropriate. Outsourcing the public WiFi to a third-party provider is the easiest way to ensure a technical infrastructure and terms of service that protect the center.

Other concerns with public WiFi include a dearth of technological skills on the part of staff and lack of physical space for patients in which to feel comfortable with their Internet-related activities. In regard to physical space, the urgent care waiting room should be designed with sufficient power outlets and a variety of seating. Workstations and power strips can be purchased at any office supply store. From a customer service perspective, having WiFi that doesn’t work is worse than having no WiFi at all so staff must be adequately trained to answer patient questions and reset the router if necessary. An outsourced WiFi network provider can provide more advanced technical capabilities, including assessment of patient’s connectivity issues over the telephone.

Reasons to Not Offer Public WiFi

There are very few downsides to offering public WiFi in an urgent care center. Concerns over the potential for signal interference with existing calibrated equipment are typically unfounded, because there should be adequate shielding in place. Some clinicians may require that patients turn off their electronic devices (especially those that record audio or video) to protect patient privacy and to prevent distraction during the actual physician-patient encounter, thus limiting their use to the waiting room. But more common concerns have to do with whether patients will actually have sufficient time to use the WiFi. Given the walk-in nature and variety of cases seen in urgent care, it’s inevitable that there will be individuals who will need to wait longer than others. While no wait or a short wait is ideal, patient WiFi will make the waits that occur more tolerable.

Raising Awareness of WiFi in the Center

While some patients may “stumble upon” or be alerted to the availability of Internet connectivity by  their  devices, most will not know WiFi is present unless prompted. How will the medical practice get the mes- sage out that they have a WiFi connection? Table 2 provides several ideas for marketing the service.

The use of landing pages and splash pages on the Wi- Fi connection itself offers a distinct opportunity to raise patient awareness of the center’s other service offerings, such as travel medicine and immigration physicals, or of seasonal promotions like flu shots and school physicals.

Conclusion

Internet connectivity is an amenity that can easily be offered by an urgent care center. As the number of WiFi-enabled establishments grows, patients will have greater expectations of Internet connectivity every- where they go. For urgent care operators, the cost and barriers to adding WiFi are relatively low and the benefits of improving the patient experience and reducing wait time perceptions can manifest incredible value through the repeat visits and positive word-of-mouth of satisfied patients.

Reference

  1. Please Do Use Your Cell Phone: Some Doctors’ Offices. HealthTechZone. http://www.healthtechzone.com/topics/healthcare/articles/2012/06/27/296704-please- use-cell-phone-some-doctors-offices.htm. Published June 27, 2012. Accessed August 21, 2012.
Offering Patient WiFi in the Urgent Care Center

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc

President of Experity Consulting and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine
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