Healthy networks: The critical link for healthcare access

In today’s on-demand society people expect basic amenities to be easily accessible.

This applies to catching a ride to the airport, renting a hotel room, getting groceries delivered – and is expanding to healthcare needs, as well. Telemedicine, for example, allows a surgeon in one location to guide another surgeon in a remote location through a complex procedure. This addresses today’s on-demand society, improving patient care by making the world’s best medical talent available outside of medical centers that are often financially and geographically out of reach for much of the population.

The healthcare landscape has evolved in many ways in the past few years, with one large change driven more by patient convenience and competitive forces than legislation. Beyond futuristic telemedicine, the emergence and success of 24 hour emergency centers in strip malls and retail clinics have the big health systems investing more so they are closer to their customer base, instead of expecting patients to come to them. Pushing deeper into communities the health systems want to serve is also often a more cost-effective way to add, or at least retain, business compared to adding more staff or expanding existing hospital real estate. As a result, construction of these ambulatory centers is skyrocketing.

While improvements to access are exciting, de-centralization’s promise for improving care and healthcare efficiency can’t succeed without broadband network infrastructure investment. For hospital systems, there is a new definition of what a “healthy network” is designed to accomplish. These centers are owned by the hospitals and need to have network connectivity back to the headquarters, regional offices and their data centers. Why? The future of healthcare is dependent upon digital applications such as enterprise imaging, telehealth and remote diagnosis that require a dynamic bandwidth allocation, “on-demand” capabilities and network analytics to understand and manage the flow of huge amounts of data from many different locations.

These centers require connectivity to the hospital’s Electronic Health Record system; need real-time access to high-resolution medical images; and often depend on video facilities (especially the ambulatory surgery centers and emergency clinics). Non-patient-facing nodes like imaging centers need connectivity to the picture archiving and communication system used for the short- and long-term storage, retrieval, management, distribution and presentation of medical images – a key enabler of healthcare taking place outside of the hospital.

Hospitals have invested in broadband networks for years, and have some of the largest capacity Wide Area Networks (WANs) of any enterprise to support large campuses with enormous amounts of data to move. Now they are in need of building more flexible and agile networks because there’s a significant difference in how these disparate centers operate.

Because the volumes from each center will vary according to the day of week or time of day, hospital systems need to be able to dynamically allocate bandwidth for when they will be really busy or around one-off catastrophic events – like a local disaster – that produces an influx of patients. They also need to prioritize traffic coming in and out of the centers, headquarters, and the data centers to ensure transmission of video, imaging and surgery when critical to patient care.

Fortunately, a blueprint is developing for a healthy healthcare network. Software, which is advancing hardware like mobile phones and cars, is also drastically changing how enterprises like hospitals build networks. New Software Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) are common in these institutions by automatically routing traffic over any number of broadband/internet links like fiber, cable, DSL and 4G/LTE. SD-WAN is the key for hospitals to connect to community-based centers with a combination of lower cost internet access for non-critical traffic, paired with more secure, network services for critical applications.

These new networks can adjust to users accessing the network from different locations and different devices—treating each incident independently. This is crucial in today’s increasingly mobile digital health environment. They can also “learn” traffic patterns as they appear over time, making them more capable to meet changes in data flow, and provide centralized management and visibility across the combined network. This allows network management from a central location to better control traffic in response to emergencies or to support events in different parts of the city.

Perhaps the best news is that software network upgrades are much easier than hardware. Hospital systems running their own private fiber network can upgrade by simply overlaying some hardware in each location. For hospitals obtaining their network service through telecom service providers, a number of them have launched or are planning SD-WAN services, with the promise of delivering all the benefits of SD- WAN without the need for an overall “rip-and-replace” approach. In both cases, the ease of this upgrade means that supporting more distributed health care systems is increasingly possible from a technical and cost perspective. The promise of digital health is incredible, making our doctors and the health systems they work for smarter, more efficient and positioned to drive better patient outcomes in every way: diagnosis, treatment and even cost. The innovation seen the past few years has been inspiring, improving healthcare while at the same time making it more convenient for patients and many of those working in the industry.

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