Not all hospitals like Ham Radio

S. Silverstein KU3E

May 30, 2001

Not all hospitals like ham radio. More public education is needed:

I am an extra-class amateur and physician/manager (medical informatics specialist involved in electronic medical records and other uses of computers in clinical settings). I once worked as Director of Clinical Computing at a major hospital serving a huge population in a small state's major population centers.

This hospital administration suffered from certain peculiar biases including distrust of the highly educated (e.g., the organization actually did not permit the Ph.D. title to be displayed on name badges or business cards).This often manifested in mismanagement of important resources, including healthcare-related information technology and beyond.

For example, I had a 4th floor office overlooking a traffic circle and a flat, elevated roof with a clear view to a distant horizon. Such a roof would have been an excellent site for a ham radio antenna. I saw the opportunity to provide a service to the community by setting up an amateur radio station at the hospital, as I had seen done by other physician-amateur radio enthusiasts over the years.

Such a station would put out about 50-100 watts of power in the HF frequency range of 3 to 30 MHz. (As I explained to management, ordinary AM radio is at about 1 MHz and FM radio is at about 100 MHz for comparison). I also explained this is about the same power than it takes to light an ordinary 60-100 watt light bulb. I would use the station occasionally on weekends for personal use, such as talking to amateur radio friends in the USA and in other nations. Such short radio waves reflect (actually, refract) from the earthís ionosphere and, although low-power, can travel great distances.

Amateur radio stations have been proven over the years to provide excellent regional, national and international coverage during times of emergency, such as natural disasters, when other services are down. A recent lightning strike, for example, had actually knocked out several emergency communications services and cellular services in this county for several hours.

Having a spare, commercial-quality, state-of-the-art piece of equipment available, the Trio-Kenwood TS-930S, I offered to donate the antennas, an unobtrusive horizontal wire or vertical pole, and the electronics to the hospital.

Of course, I was concerned about possible interference to other communications (e.g., ambulance) or to medical equipment. I researched the internet, pulling out a dozen stories where amateur radio had been critical to real hospitals after a devastating tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster, and where such installations had not been causing interference to other hospital functions.I also enlisted the aid of the hospitalís own biomedical engineers and telecommunications personnel who supported the project.

I also knew that a well-known hospital in a nearby city had an extensive ham radio station for many years and operated without interference to other communications or medical equipment. (I had been taken to the roof of that hospital as a guest years ago to see the extensive ham radio antennas). Lastly, I provided information that a very large hospital chain in earthquake-prone California had an extensive ham radio network set up across dozens of its hospitals, and that the director of its ham radio operations, a friend of a former classmate, indicated no problems with interference. My hospitalís own radio telecommunications team did not expect interference, and I agreed to remove the installation after a testing period if any such interference appeared.

The response of this hospitalís leadership, however, was entirely problem-oriented and reactive. They feared interference with existing "microwave radio facilities" (of course, having little idea of what a microwave actually was) and biomedical equipment. Before any such installation could even be attempted, they insisted on calling in a "consultant" to evaluate the proposal, not trusting their own biomedical engineering, telecommunications, or resident extra-class ham radio physician to be capable of rendering such opinions. However, since 'budgets were tight', there was no money to pay for an expensive consultant. So, we're very sorry, permission denied.

Administration was reassured by their own telecommunications and biomedical engineers that shortwave emissions were not microwaves. They were told that, in fact, the amount of microwaves emitted from the shortwave transmitter in question was measurable, and probably on the order of the amount the hospital would receive from a microwave transmitter placed on the moon (using a rough calculation known from earth-moon-earth communications actually sometimes used by hams).

This was not listened to, however. Despite the near-zero cost factor, despite the potential value to the community in an emergency as documented from news releases easily available in the press and on the Internet, despite many other hospitals having such installations without problems, despite the reassurances of their own experts, and the offer to test and remove if any interference occurred, the installation of an amateur radio emergency station was blocked.

At the same time, the executives had no fear of business class desktop computers hanging from the ceiling over the head of ICU patients, serving as potential vectors for the spread of aggressive, potentially drug resistant airborne pathogens as described here.This was despite the serious expressed concerns of their in house experts.

Ironically, a recent thunderstorm in this area had knocked out major emergency-service telecommunications late one night for several hours.