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Successful Network Connectivity Critical for Patient Safety

Healthcare organizations may underestimate how critical network connectivity is when it comes to using digital tools to treat patients.

network connectivity

Source: Thinkstock

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- Implementing advanced health IT tools is not an easy task. While many of these tools offer organizations more efficient and beneficial ways to treat patients and address workflow, the tools need to be implemented thoughtfully and correctly to provide their services to their full capacity. Network connectivity is critical to ensuring patients are treated successfully and safely.

Networks that can’t handle the influx of connected medical devices, and devices that are not integrated into IT infrastructure properly, can cause functionality problems. More importantly, unsuccessful network connectivity can put patients in danger.

Medical error is the third-leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer, according to research conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine. While this statistic is not exclusive to errors in technology, errors with digital tools and connectivity are factored in.

Advanced digital tools can enhance a clinician’s ability to treat patients, which can potentially save lives. However, if these tools are not implemented to successfully integrate into health IT infrastructure they can cause more problems. 

Digital medical tools and connected medical devices are designed to enhance workflow and improve patient experience by recording and processing information faster. There are cases though where these devices can malfunction or lose connectivity and put the patient at risk.

READ MORE: Key Ways to Overcome Healthcare Wireless Network Challenges

For example, if a clinician is using a digital tool to read vital signs and a connection is lost or the device malfunctions and there isn’t a backup protocol in place, the clinician no longer has access to vital information needed to treat a patient.

Purchasing digital tools and deploying them onto existing infrastructure is not enough to make sure those tools are going to function the way they need to. Organizations need to prepare for these devices so they can be depended on.

Network connection is one of the biggest areas where digital and mobile tools fail. In the consumer world, users are no strangers to dropped connections and apps that don’t load.

Unfortunately, many end users experience a crashed app and slow load times almost daily. While this is an inconvenience when users can’t access email or social media, but the same problems can be dangerous in healthcare situations.

Patient monitoring devices that suddenly stop sending signals or start sending signals that are incorrect can put patients at risk. Clinicians who can’t access their EHR applications on their mobile devices can’t access information needed to treat patients.

READ MORE: Considerations for Connected Medical Device Networks

Organizations also can’t treat connected mobile devices the same way they treat traditional wired devices. Mobile and connected devices don’t function the same and they need to be considered differently when it comes to approaching how the network will handle connections and how the network needs to be laid out, according to Medigram CEO Sherri Douville.

“The mobile phone is more like a stroke patient,” Douville explained to HITInfrastructure.com in a previous interview. “Everything happens fast and it happens quickly. A computer is more like a cancer patient where you have a little bit more time. They are different forms with different anatomy.”

Not only are the computer and the smartphone different kinds of “patients” but it’s the network that determines how well these devices are connecting and sharing information. This variance between devices and the difference between healthcare and consumer devices can cause serious connectivity and compliance issues.

Hospitals are also a radically different environment than office parks where other industries set up their networks. Businesses in traditional office parks can be up and running with a complete wireless network within days. Hospitals have a unique set of challenges making network installation and upgrading time consuming and difficult.

Hospitals have physical limitations that other organizations don’t have. Hospital networks need to support a tremendous amount of weight, which makes retrofitting a wireless network a taxing and sometimes impossible task. There are various forms of technology competing for the same space and this variance creates interference.

READ MORE: Using Broadband to Support Internet of Medical Things

MRI machines can conflict with network signals and microwaves in break rooms can conflict with other networked tools. Organizations need to deploy access points to make sure that they’re not only broadcasting 2.4 GHz and 5GHz, but also rebroadcasting AM frequency for pagers and LTE for mobile devices.

All of these requirements can be overwhelming and costly but setting up a network incorrectly can be an extremely expensive mistake.

There is no magic fix for connectivity issues in healthcare organizations. Entities have spent millions of dollars and still have areas of the network that they can’t control because of the complexities of healthcare wireless deployment.

Planning and testing are critical to making sure healthcare networks are supporting the weight they need to and can scale to fit future needs.

Healthcare wireless networks are complex and will always challenge organizations no matter how advanced they are. Investing in the network as a whole, instead of applying quick fixes that don’t fully address the problem may be expensive, but less downtime and better connectivity is invaluable to healthcare organizations.

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