The healthcare sector is at a precipice of technology-enabled change with pervasive network implications.

Once upon a time, hospital networks were designed to support central IT systems. Very little data was accessed bedside, and patient access to the network was not even a consideration. Fast forward to today, and there’s an increasing demand for knowledge, visibility and empowerment in relation to the way care is delivered – from patients, clinicians and IT teams alike.

How can the network help?

The patient

Patients and their visitors now routinely arrive carrying at least one mobile device, often more. Healthcare networks need to not only accommodate that demand for Wi-Fi access, but harness it to proactively enhance the patient experience.

  • Network-enabled services mean it is now possible to deliver personalised, patient-specific information directly to their mobile device, making it easier to access hospital services, their healthcare records, or entertainment to distract from recovery and waiting time.
  • Location-aware network presence can make it easier for the patient to find different clinical services within the hospital - or just a decent coffee in the hospital cafeteria! - with step by step directions as you walk down a corridor.

All of this is possible today, but it requires robust networks, carefully planned Wi-Fi provision, and context-specific network access to provide patients with access to what they need - without interfering with priority network traffic, or compromising privacy and security. Healthcare network design must begin with user experience and it must support and enable strategic decisions in relation to securely sharing information with patients and how best to do this. All of this occurs against a backdrop of hundreds, if not thousands, of mobile devices walking in the door each day with new and returning patients. Is your network ready to meet this demand?

The clinicians

Clinicians increasingly access patient and hospital data on hospital systems and their mobile devices around the clock - from home, their rooms, and on the ward. With staff using a myriad of devices, both hospital-issued and BYO, the network needs to have identity and security at its core. User profiles, and device and location awareness enables clinicians to access what they need, when they need it.

It is here that the network subtleties arise. Yes, patients and clinicians need robust Wi-Fi access for example, but are their needs equal when network loads approach limits in periods of congestion? Clearly the answer should be no. The clinician’s need to access an urgent, high-resolution scan should take priority over a nearby patient’s movie download. In routine network use, both would typically occur without interference, but intelligent healthcare network design today can now automate network bandwidth priority for critical clinical systems. Quietly, seamlessly, automatically behind the scenes – so clinicians can quickly access the data-intensive information they need to support and enable decisions for patient care.

Ultra-reliable wireless for point-of-care applications in healthcare environments means clinicians can move between systems with rapid credentialing for secure access, and reliability made possible by automatically ensuring critical healthcare devices and apps always get priority treatment.

The IT department

While the patient and the clinicians typically focus on the device in their hand, the IT department grapples with network demands that are far broader. The Internet of Things is growing at an exponential pace in healthcare environments and this is integrally linked to the data deluge swamping networks.

The applications range from the mundane to the critical. At the mundane end of the spectrum, basic functions like asset tracking can now be network-enabled. Healthcare IT administrators can reduce the often significant costs associated with the loss of shared medical equipment by implementing BLE or RFID tags with wireless tracking. This means that equipment such as wheelchairs, diagnostic carts and infusion pumps can now be managed with real-time location tracking throughout the hospital, and deliver automated alerts when a piece of equipment is moved beyond its allocated zone.

At the other end of the spectrum, think for example of Wi-Fi enabled patient monitors. With data constantly generated, artificial intelligence is able to analyse that data in real-time to alert clinicians immediately if there are clinically significant changes. Think too of the computers on wheels that are still a feature of many hospitals. It doesn’t stop there though. Augmented reality healthcare applications are already enabling clinicians to visualise scan data on the patient’s body. Likewise, with scan data – the clinician of the future is far more likely to want to explore scans in 3D and 4D, with all of the data loads that that entails.

The range of network considerations between those two ends of the spectrum is significant:

  • The data capture, storage and access involved in the digitisation of healthcare records.
  • Network infrastructure, systems and policies needed to manage workflows to link the right services and data to the right users, safely and easily.
  • Automated network responses and security frameworks to protect data by instantly responding to external threats and anomalies.
  • The broader security considerations that the Internet of Things brings.
  • The impact should a remote threat successfully shut down critical life-support systems.
  • Management and control interfaces that cover network performance, asset tracking, clinical system data flows and network intrusion.

The possibilities are endless, and the healthcare sector is transforming at a phenomenal pace but it all comes with new demands on the network. Network failure in a modern healthcare environment can have catastrophic consequences. Is your network up to the task?