- As healthcare organizations continue to utilize telehealth programs, it’s more important than ever to make sure that all health IT infrastructure requirements for telehealth are met. Organizations that do not properly support their telehealth network will experience dropped connections, security risks, and dissatisfied clinicians and patients.
Developing a plan that takes into account current telehealth needs as well as future demands is the first thing organizations need to do when considering telehealth. The network needs to be scalable and updates need to be made on a realistic timeline that takes budget and available resources into consideration.
Telehealth is a prominent tool for rural hospitals that treat patients who cannot make frequent trips to their providers. These areas often have weaker connectivity than urban areas, which makes telehealth infrastructure critical to supporting these areas.
According to the ONC, telehealth programs require:
- Access to broadband internet: sufficient bandwidth is needed to transmit audio and video data. Organizations in rural areas may have difficulty connecting to or obtaining affordable and reliable broadband service.
- Imaging technology or peripherals: these devices are the backbone of telehealth and allow healthcare organizations to see and hear patients even when they are miles apart. Digital stethoscopes, for instance, can transmit heart and lung sounds to remote providers.
- Access to technical support staff: Technical support staff members can help answer questions about telehealth programs.
- Staff training: staff needs to be trained to use telehealth technology, which may take time. Organizations should consider whether workflow changes may be required and train accordingly.
Telehealth is about reliable connectivity no matter where the clinician or patient are located.
Unreliable connectivity will prevent any telehealth program from being successful, according to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.
“Telemedicine is not like a business conference where you can tolerate some poor quality and metal through it,” Director of Telemedicine at Children’s Mercy Morgan Waller told HITInfrastructure.com in a previous interview. “Poor quality connection is a total dealbreaker for us.”
“When we need to be at an access hospital or someone’s home, it’s very difficult to implement different security systems,” Waller continued. “If it’s an access hospital, you need to meet with their IT and there’s troubleshooting - it takes days or even weeks to set up.”
Organizations need to consider how clinicians and patients are securely connecting to the network remotely. Entities also need to know how strong that connection is to support video streaming and other data intensive telemedicine needs.
Organizations have to compensate for lack of coverage and set up telemedicine programs that can take advantage of whichever signal is the strongest and most reliable in the area.
This may require organizations to have several contracts with different cellular or wireless providers in different areas, which can be especially complex for larger healthcare organizations.
The telehealth market is expected to reach almost $64 million by 2022 as more healthcare organizations build telehealth programs, according to a recent Research and Markets report. An increasing population, more people living with chronic disease, and the desire for people to consult with specialists that aren’t in their area also helps telemedicine use increase.
Telehealth also assists interoperability efforts by offering a channel for different healthcare providers to communicate on the same platform, the report found.
Beginning with a solid and realistic plan is the first critical step in building a network that will support the connectivity and security requirements of telehealth. Once a plan is established, reaching out to telehealth vendors and consulting them while planning out infrastructure upgrades will help organizations establish a solid network without gaps.
Simply relying on WiFi or a single cellular provider is no longer reliable or secure enough for clinicians to successfully exchange the information they need to treat and communicate with patients. Building a scalable IT infrastructure to support telehealth is necessary for telehealth organizations.