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Wi-Fi Keeps Patients and Families Connected

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When four-year-old Kory Billings was diagnosed with leukemia, his Dad, Greg, needed to keep up with his work responsibilities while tending to his most important job of all, looking after his children.

At age nine, Kory received a bone marrow transplant at Duke University Medical Center, thanks to his sister Karly’s generous donation. During that time, his Dad made use of the Wi-Fi access at Duke to keep working.

“When you have a serious illness and you know you’re facing the prospect of being in a hospital days on end, as a parent you have a lot of outside pressures,” said Greg Billings, previously deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Tim Johnson. “You have a job you have to stay up on.”

When the time came to seek follow-up treatment for Kory at Georgetown University Hospital, in Washington, D.C., Greg discovered that he wouldn’t have access to the same helpful Wi-Fi connectivity he used at Duke. He, along with Linda Kim, Georgetown’s childlife specialist, helped spearhead the installation of Georgetown’s WLAN network, allowing patients and guests to stay connected and keep family members informed of the patients’ condition.

At Georgetown, Wi-Fi service started in pediatrics because parents needed a VPN to do work while their kids were being treated, said Kim. “Children wanted to do schoolwork and e-mail their friends,” she said. Kim recalled that it was important to the hospital’s CEO to provide the service for free, noting that other hospitals charge $5–$10 a day. “We didn’t want to charge the patients,” she said.

A real lifesaver

The availability of such a wireless network comes at a time when people are increasingly connected 24/7, even in a hospital. Georgetown is one of 150 hospitals using CaringBridge, a nonprofit organization started in 1997 that offers a free Web service connecting 20 million families yearly. CaringBridge now has more than 150,000 personalized Web sites for people dealing with major health conditions. According to CaringBridge, the site is not accessible via search engines, and it’s the first such free online service for people facing a serious health condition.

Kim said CaringBridge “has been a nice service to have because the caregiver is very busy. They don’t have time to answer phone calls all the time. They don’t have to receive phone calls all the time.” Patients often post pictures and notes after they’ve left the hospital, she said. “We can keep up with patients that have been discharged, are going home, and doing well.”GeorgetownPatient

Georgetown’s Kim said the hospital’s childlife department loans out laptops when a family doesn’t have a computer handy. “There’s also one in the family room and one in the playroom,” she said. According to Kim, kids often stay busy playing Webkinz, the virtual online pet game, while parents are working.

Kim said the hospital also has Webcams available, allowing bedside videoconferencing. She adds that Georgetown will soon add Webcams in schools for children to keep up with lessons and classmates.

According to Sami Pelton, partnership director at CaringBridge, 86 percent of users surveyed reported that the CaringBridge site helps them in their healing.

“CaringBridge is a wonderful service to families to stay connected to their friends and family when they’re going through a health crisis,” said Sami Pelton, CaringBridge partnership director. According to Pelton, 150 Wi-Fi–enabled hospitals now offer CaringBridge service and Wi-Fi. “It allows them to communicate with their family and friends to [share] what’s going on medically, spiritually, and offer lover and support through the guestbook feature,” Pelton said.

Other universities sponsoring the CaringBridge service include University Medical Center in Tuscon, Arizona, and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, New Jersey.

On CaringBridge, Kim said it’s “very user-friendly,” noting that it allows parents to vet communication with family and friends regarding the condition and make treatment less emotionally taxing.

According to Pelton, the partnership with Georgetown allows cross-marketing opportunities. “We work with a hospital like Georgetown, and in exchange we provide some cobranding for the pages created,” she explained.

“The Web sites that are built don’t have banner ads. It’s very pure and very centered around their family,” said Pelton.

New horizons

Billings left Capitol Hill to start an Internet marketing business and remains on the advisory board of Georgetown Hospital that oversees the wireless network. He’s now working for a law firm dealing with telemedicine.

As for Kory, his outlook is bright. “It’s probably very unlikely we’ll see the leukemia again,” said Billings, noting that the risk still exists for a secondary cancer.

Although Wi-Fi can’t take away the taxing emotional experience of a serious illness, patients and their families, like the Billings, facing a challenging medical condition can turn to wireless Internet access in hospitals to communicate with loved ones and help them cope. “Being able to know in this day and age that you can have access to that computer in a hospital while you’re sitting there and doing the most important thing in your life, taking care of your child, having that wireless access is immeasurable and invaluable,” said Billings.

Brian T. Horowitz is a freelance contributor based in New York. He has written for publications such as Fast Company,, and USA Weekend and has covered topics ranging from to data storage to energy to diet.

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