The healthcare industry is in the midst of a profound transformation as it shifts to quality-based outcomes from the traditional fee-for-service model. But the success of this transformation hinges on the implementation of robust technology systems and processes, standard practices, and efficient sharing of information between healthcare providers, labs, pharmacies, and patients.
Technology is the primary enabler of this shift, the engine for change. We aren’t just talking about filling out a few forms online. What’s happening is the implementation of an intricate array of technologies that includes video diagnostics, operating rooms with robotics and closed-circuit video connections, patient portals with access to medical records, health-monitoring wearables connected to the web, and massive information-sharing and electronic record-storage software systems. That’s just to name a few.
In many cases, these systems have to talk to each other. Getting them to do that is no easy task. It creates an enormous demand for robust, reliable data networks, bandwidth, and connectivity to link together hospitals, clinics, labs, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and patients. For many healthcare providers, a cloud infrastructure is the obvious solution to implement and connect all of this technology cost effectively and efficiently.
But these clouds have to be robust and secure in order to handle the massive volumes of data that flow in and out of networks safely. Increasingly, healthcare providers are looking to private Ethernet to securely and reliably deliver the vast multipoint, location-to-location connectivity they require.
As healthcare costs continue to increase, the industry is turning to technology to control the costs of delivering care. The goal is to improve the speed, quality, and safety of care without further accelerating cost increases. The need to reform is understood, and incentives have been put in place to improve the quality and value of care, as well as the overall health of the population.
It used to be a patient would seek treatment, and no one gave much thought to how many times that person returned to a doctor or clinic for the same ailment. Now there is a push to reduce return visits with efforts to minimize misdiagnoses and zero in on the right treatment as early in the process as possible. Prevention now is a bigger focus. Patients are encouraged not to skip their regular checkups, and electronic monitors are being issued that allow for prompt, decisive action by healthcare providers at early signs of trouble.
Data and metrics can play a role here, and going forward providers will put more and more emphasis on data collection, analysis, and sharing to achieve those quality-based outcomes the industry so badly needs.
To prod the industry in its reform efforts, the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, or HITECH Act, included measures and incentives for hospitals and doctors to invest in new technologies to drive efficiencies and improve data sharing and collaboration.
For instance, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements were tied to Meaningful Use of electronic health record systems, which replace paper patient records and charts with digital documents accessible securely in real time by authorized users. EHRs deliver multiple benefits, including ready access and easy navigation of complete patient medical histories, allowing physicians and specialists to analyze patient data simultaneously.
As part of the EHR effort, hospitals, clinics, and physicians are being required to allow patients to go online to view, download, and transmit their health information within four business days of when the information is available. To make that happen, providers are integrating EHR systems with other technology solutions. Those solutions include picture archiving and communication systems (PACS), which store images such as MRI, X-ray, and CT scans and give patients access to them through web portals.
Another type of solution, health information exchanges (HIEs), allows doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare providers and patients to access medical records electronically. When appropriate, that information can be shared quickly and efficiently to produce better patient outcomes. There is even a movement to make it easier to share medical data with researchers as they work to find cures for various diseases and illnesses.
Strain on infrastructure
The systems healthcare providers have been implementing, which in some cases combine video with voice and data networks, can seriously strain existing infrastructure. Providers, therefore, have no choice but to invest in updating their infrastructure and boosting connectivity and bandwidth.
For many, one of the fastest, affordable routes is to leverage a cloud infrastructure, but moving mission-critical healthcare applications to the cloud isn’t something any provider will do lightly. Providers may opt for private or hybrid clouds and require a robust network with built-in redundancy and direct connectivity, bypassing the internet in an effort to address security concerns and avoid latency issues.
Healthcare networks and applications must be reliable and highly available; in some cases the transmission of information could literally be a life-and-death situation.
In addition, these systems and connections must be highly secure because medical records are among the most sensitive types of data that flow in and out of networks. The transmission and storage of these records are subject to stringent privacy regulations, chief among them the 1996 Health Information Portability and Accountability Act. Adding pressure to the need for security is the hacker issue; healthcare records have become a common target of cybercriminals in recent years.
Multipoint connectivity requirements
Delivering a high level of reliability and security can mean robust, fat Carrier Ethernet pipes with built-in redundancy to handle the ever-increasing volumes of data flowing back and forth between care providers and patients. Picture a scenario where the hospital is the nerve center of a vast, intricate network feeding and receiving data to and from doctors’ offices, patient homes, clinics, pharmacies, labs, data centers – and the mobile devices of doctors, nurses, and patients.
The hospital needs a high-performance, highly available and scalable network to handle critical systems such as EHR, PACS, video, and voice connections for telemedicine, Wi-Fi links for mobile devices and wristband scanners, and a host of other data-intensive applications. The network must connect securely with patient homes and devices for health monitoring purposes, access to medical records, and so forth.
Secure, reliable links must be in place to give doctors access to patient files through their computers and mobile devices whenever needed, wherever they are. This requires a high-capacity wide-area network (WAN) with multipoint, broad-range connections in a geographically distributed area, and must deliver the performance and availability you would expect if all parties were operating in the same building. Even if the various parties are operating dozens or hundreds of miles apart, communication must be seamless and efficient.
In this scenario, a data center or two is operating somewhere. In a cloud-based environment, a trusted third party runs the data center where the servers, storage, and networking equipment are managed. These facilities, too, require secure, reliable, high-bandwidth connectivity to process and deliver the data being used across the entire landscape.
The demands placed on healthcare systems and networks are immense. These systems have to handle not only current volumes and connectivity requirements but also have the capacity to scale as new applications come online and data volumes increase. Legacy infrastructures may not be able to handle these new demands, which means healthcare organizations need to find solutions for their growing requirements.
That’s why many healthcare providers are turning to the cloud for capacity and scalability. But to properly leverage cloud infrastructures, the increasingly intricate, interconnected networks of healthcare providers require secure, reliable direct links that bypass the internet. Healthcare’s transformation toward quality-based outcomes has the potential to revolutionize the delivery of patient care. To live up to that potential, serious investment may be needed in cloud technology, connectivity, and bandwidth.