Wi-Fi and the modern dental office

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Wi-Fi is a critical part of life for businesses as well as consumers. It’s in our homes, offices and public spaces. With the increasing ubiquity of always-on, high-bandwidth wireless connectivity, comes a whole host of issues concerning data security and privacy. 

Dr. Jason Ta, DMD, of Lawndale, California, faced many of these issues when he took over a dental office with aging consumer-grade networking equipment. For dental offices like Dr. Ta’s, covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requirements and the need to protect and secure patient records, while still providing connectivity to staff and patients, paying attention to their IT infrastructure is particularly important. 

Dr. Ta’s office needs access to patient records and billing information. Patients in his waiting room want to check their email, messages and social media while waiting for their appointments. Credit card transactions need to be processed. Security cameras monitor the premises. These needs are the same faced by many dental practices (as well as most small businesses), satisfying multiple business needs on a limited budget. 

Those business needs, as well as solutions, are changing and evolving. Today’s office is a mixed environment of smartphones, laptops, tablets, and IP-enabled video security cameras. Patients and staff often bring in their personal laptops, smartphones, tablets and wearable devices like smart watches, further taxing the existing networks. Meanwhile, new Wi-Fi standards and technology are being introduced and there are new demands on networks for things like bandwidth-intensive apps (IP communications, HD video) placing even greater demands on wireless networks.

Most importantly, the threat of data breaches is greater than ever before. The Office for Civil Rights, responsible for enforcing HIPAA mandates, is taking a very hard line on all healthcare practices that fail to take adequate steps to comply with HIPAA and keep their electronic records secure. 

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Many dental offices, like many small businesses, find themselves in the same situation as Dr. Ta-dealing with antiquated equipment that was not designed for the modern office environment. The following article outlines how a dental office can have a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi network, increase staff efficiency and patient satisfaction, while also securing patient records in a way that avoids HIPAA-related violations. 

Why Upgrade?

“When I took over the office, everything was outdated. The networking equipment was consumer grade and out of date. The practice management software and computers were similarly aged; running Windows XP which isn’t even supported anymore by Microsoft,” said Dr. Ta. “I realized that if we were going to run a modern, efficient dental office that met the needs of our patients while providing the staff with the tools they need to do their jobs, we needed to upgrade the entire network-computers, routers and the rest-and we needed to do it now.”

Making an investment in IT is never an easy decision. But upgrading antiquated equipment will improve staff efficiency through less network downtime, better collaboration and faster speeds. In addition, it will provide better customer service and satisfaction, with far less downtime caused by network outages. 

HIPAA requirements for the safeguarding of patient records and medical information means security must be considered first and foremost. The less time spent thinking about compliance, the easier it is to focus on offering quality care and customer service. For a small investment, no more than a few hundred dollars, there can be significant savings in the long run. 


When Is An Upgrade Needed?

If, like Dr. Ta’s office before the upgrade, there are multiple issues with the network, i.e., a slow internet connection, Wi-Fi dead spots, or if the network is not stable, it is time for an upgrade. 

Many dental offices believe that by upgrading their service to a faster speed, they are increasing the efficiency of their network. That’s not necessarily so. More speed on the ISP side of the router does not necessarily mean more speed and more ability to move large computer files and run bandwidth-intensive applications within the network. For that, the office must ensure that the most current technology available to small businesses is being utilized. 

Wireless networking technology is changing quickly; the 802.11n standard that was once cutting edge, has given way to 802.11ac, a more powerful standard that can support more devices and bandwidth-intensive applications on a network. 

802.11ax, an even stronger standard, is already coming to market, but for most small businesses like Dr. Ta’s, an upgrade to 802.11ac is more than sufficient. 

What Equipment Should Be Chosen?

What equipment is needed to ensure adequate bandwidth for all network activities, while combating security breaches and ensuring HIPAA compliance?

Unfortunately, many offices are penny wise and pound foolish, preferring to save a few dollars where networking equipment is concerned. They’re satisfied with the consumer-grade router provided by their ISP. This router will get the office online and provide Wi-Fi, but it won’t ensure adequate coverage for all of the devices in the office and, perhaps more importantly, it certainly won’t provide the robust security needed for HIPAA compliance. For that, a move up to business-grade networking equipment is essential. 

For only a few hundred dollars more, business-grade routers offer a number of important features not included in a router provided by an ISP. They can handle more devices, offer greater security, easier device management, and the ability to create virtual local area networks, or VLANS, that create virtual networks, walled off from the rest of the network for greater security. Their signal can be extended with access points, ensuring no more Wi-Fi dead spots. 

For example, in Dr. Ta’s office, one network is for patients in the waiting room, another for staff that connects computers, servers and printers. Yet another handles payments, walling off all payment devices for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard compliance. All of the networks are separated from one another so when one network is compromised, the rest are safe and secure.

With many records now stored in the cloud, a reliable, stable and secure connection is a must-have. A business-grade router supports more connections and has more management options to keep access to the router flexible and secure.

Business-grade routers can also support more than one internet service provider, one primary and another as a back-up, so there’s never any downtime. 

Like Dr. Ta’s before the upgrade, almost every office has “dead spots” where Wi-Fi reception is spotty at best. In a typical office, the signal has to travel through many walls into different rooms. An all-in-one consumer wireless router in the corner of the office will never reach all the areas it needs to cover. A business-grade router will allow connections to multiple access points in different areas that are dedicated just for Wi-Fi. Dr. Ta’s office has two that between them provide complete coverage throughout the office. Not only does this extend the reach of the Wi-Fi signal, it means as users move through the office, they won’t lose their connection; they’ll be seamlessly passed from one access point to another. Because these access points are cloud managed, configuration is also quick and simple. If an access point goes down, a notification will be sent by email, and replacement access points can be brought up in no time. 

What signs on the box indicate the router being purchased is up to the task? As mentioned above, it needs to run 802.11ac and run multiple VLANS. They also have an intuitive user interface so changes can be made easily and network traffic can be monitored.

“I can’t say enough about how important it is for all dental practices to pay attention to their IT and network needs. Upgrading our network was among the smartest business decisions I made,” said Dr. Ta. “Office efficiency and moral is up, patients are happy and I can spend less time worrying about HIPAA compliance and other issues, and more time on serving my patients.”