- Wireless and cellular technologies are advancing, and healthcare networks need to keep up in order to support digital tools and connected medical devices.
Applying network upgrades to existing systems to accommodate more data and an increased number of devices requires a well thought-out plan and the support from an organization’s financial stakeholders.
Even though it may seem like a daunting expense, upgrading the network is a critical part of ensuring that clinicians can provide reliable, safe care using digital tools.
“Information has to arrive when you need it,” said Shafiq Rab, Rush University Medical Center Senior Vice President and CIO, to HITInfrastructure.com. “Imagine you're trying to go to your friend's house. When you get there only one leg and two hands show up; the rest of your body is somewhere else. How would you feel?”
“Say you build a much better network, but you still leave your toe behind?” he continued. “That’s not going to work either. You need your complete body. If you’re always leaving something behind, you could never leave the house. You need your information to be complete, as well, and you need it every time the information is moved.”
Tagging certain data high-value streams, like connected medical devices in the ICU, can help to prioritize that data and ensure that it is received on the other end without missing any proverbial limbs.
“If you think about your network as a four-lane highway, you want to ensure that the most important data is treated like a police car,” explained Rab. “It should be given a true path and it should go faster than any other data so it can reach the doctors and nurses who need it.”
This is data in the fast lane, he added.
Rush University Medical Center uses this method to improve patient care and move forward with connected technology. The health system uses high-end core switches and runs single-mode fibers from the core switches to the closet switches where it is then communicated with the end user. This method gives end users the speed they desire without dropping any packets so there is no latency.
Building a stable, secure, trustworthy, and latency-free network can be a challenge for many organizations, especially when financial planning and project execution are involved.
Healthcare tends to have different business incentives than other industries, and it may not be immediately clear how network connectivity plays into broader goals of patient satisfaction and quality care.
However, Rab believes that supporting a network to improve the patient experience is a worthwhile business investment. Health systems that continue to improve their IT infrastructure will outpace the ones that don’t.
Organizations that take a proactive stance on infrastructure development and technology investments may start to find that they earn a reputation for being innovative and forward-thinking - and patients who don’t hear clinicians muttering about lost connections may feel significantly more confident in the quality of the care they’re receiving.
In an increasingly digital environment, organizations simply cannot afford to underestimate the importance of reliable healthcare network connectivity, Rab stressed.
“When we build networking in a healthcare environment, it is a lifeline,” he stated. “Think of it as an IV or oxygen in the nose.”
There is no silver bullet that will completely solve networking issues. Organizations may find unanticipated challenges in their way, such as physical barriers, which may take significant investment and creative thinking to overcome.
Similar to building and maintaining roads and highways, these projects can take years. Planning and budgeting for such a complex undertaking requires meaningful working relationships across departments..
“IT needs to form a good relationship with the finance department,” Rab advised. “Financial executives understand that end users need information lickety-split. If both IT and finance can sit down together and say, ‘Hey, by doing this, we can make the lives of our patients better,’ finance will come and see us to improve network connectivity.”
IT leaders can borrow some lessons from their financial colleagues, too, added Rab.
“IT executives need to become businessmen in order to get network upgrades done, because there isn’t an end to networking,” he explained. “The network is the beginning that will allow you to build servers, which will allow you to build applications, which will allow you to do build usable solutions. You have to do a whole cycle.”
“You can build a beautiful six-lane, 500-mile highway, but you could end up only walking on it because you don’t have enough money to buy a car,” he continued. “That’s a failure. The entire project and the outcome needs to be understood for the network to be successful.”
Planning is also a key step. Even if the funding is there, without a realistic and long-term plan, organizations can end up spending more money on quick fixes, or update parts of the network in the incorrect order.
“Some organizations do not plan ahead, and many are reactionary,” said Rab. “They wait for the network to go down or until the protocols are outdated to assess the problem. There needs to be a cycle of preventative and predictive movement. Organizations are moving from infrastructure networking to software networking, so they have to be able to plan for that.”
When planning for network upgrades, Rab suggests that organizations begin by identifying the problems that need to be solved and coming up with a business use-case to justify spending on the network.
Finding a vendor partner that is seasoned in the healthcare space is also critical when it comes to covering all the bases while expanding the network.
Healthcare organizations should also consider adding redundancies to the network to ensure that the network is reliable and resilient when unforeseen events, like a natural disaster, threaten normal operations.
“You have to build in quadruple redundancies,” Rab advised. “Quadruple. Not two, not three, but four. You have to build the network as if your own personal life depends on it. That thought will drive organizations to do the right thing with the network. Quadruple redundancy, fully secure, always available, and full-speed.”
A reliable and adaptable network can help every piece of a healthcare organization be more successful.
“It’s not just an IT project,” Rab concluded. “We want to make the lives of the loved ones who come here better. We want the lives of the clinicians to be better by making sure that our networking, Wi-Fi, and infrastructure is one hundred percent reliable.”
“Patients are our customers,” he continued. “If you have a better, more reliable network, you can enhance your business. That means you can see more patients, you can make more money. At the same time, the patients will be happy, your providers will not crumble, and your clinicians will not be burned out.”