Modern healthcare organizations are connected, highly integrated ecosystems, comprising multiple digital systems and technologies that support patients, visitors, providers, partners and vendors. Yet while technology has made many aspects of care delivery more effective and more profitable, it has also created new challenges around network management and performance. Just to name a few:
- Electronic health records (EHRs) allow providers across a healthcare system to access a patient’s medical records digitally. This creates a more comprehensive view of a patient’s care needs and medical history, but the effectiveness of EHRs hinges on a network’s uptime and reliability.
- Many EHRs are also cloud-based, and traditional networking protocols were not designed for the cloud era. When legacy networks must access the cloud, traffic from an individual facility has to be backhauled to the cloud from a central facility or data center, slowing network speeds and straining bandwidth.
- Connected medical devices, such as glucose and heart-rate monitoring devices, allow patients’ vitals to be tracked and measured, while they are inside a healthcare facility as well as remotely. The devices collect patient data and move it to the cloud, so providers can access and view it from anywhere. This sensitive data must be protected as it moves from devices to the cloud on a network, to comply with regulations as well as to keep patients safe. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidance regarding connected medical devices, stating cybersecurity incidents “have rendered medical devices … inoperable, [which] can delay diagnoses and/or treatment and may lead to patient harm.”
- Mergers, acquisitions and consolidation within the healthcare industry have resulted in large health systems with multiple locations spread across wide geographic areas, and Deloitte predicts healthcare M&A activity and consolidation is likely to continue post-pandemic. All of these locations must connect to and communicate with each other, which creates complexity around network implementation and management for IT teams.
- Telehealth has helped providers treat some patients at a safe distance during the pandemic; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020 over the same period in 2019. Recent policy changes during the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced barriers to telehealth access, and providers have promoted the use of telehealth, meaning the trend toward telehealth is likely to continue even post-pandemic. Providing effective telehealth and virtual care requires healthcare organizations’ networks to have high levels of speed, bandwidth, and availability.
To overcome these and other challenges, healthcare organizations must modernize their network solutions. Traditional wide-area networks (WANs) struggle to support multiple locations and cloud access, and upgrading or retrofitting legacy WANs to add capacity and speed is cost-prohibitive and time-consuming. Instead, healthcare organizations can consider software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) solutions, which can help deliver high-quality patient care in the digital era through:
- 24/7 uptime and high reliability: SD-WAN uses software to route network traffic over the fastest path across multiple connections, and can segment traffic flow to prioritize business-critical data. It’s efficient, yet highly reliable, even when the same network must support multiple high-bandwidth and/or cloud-based applications. For example, SD-WAN can handle an increase in telehealth visits without affecting connectivity for other mission-critical systems and devices on the network.
- Secure cloud access: SD-WAN can securely connect facilities to any application (whether hosted in the data center or the cloud) across any wide-area network (WAN) connectivity. Because SD-WAN uses IPSec tunneling, the connectivity layer (MPLS, broadband, LTE, etc.) is only for transport; data on the network travels from site to site, or from device to device, fully encrypted, so patient data is not compromised.
- Cybersecurity protocols: A solution like TNS Secure SD-WAN, a managed service powered by Fortinet, offers anti-virus protection with anti-malware and spyware; URL filtering and TLS packet inspection; dynamic policy management; and regular firmware updates.
- Reduced complexity of network management: “Zero-touch” routers allow for simple scalability and quick provisioning of new facilities, while centralized management gives IT teams visibility into the entire network, even across multiple locations. Managed services solutions like TNS’ take the entire burden of management off IT, helping them focus on other technology initiatives to support providers and patients.
As the healthcare industry grows more complex — and more connected — SD-WAN solutions can overcome the network challenges that legacy solutions aren’t equipped to handle, positioning healthcare systems for success in the digital age.
John Tait is Global Managing Director of TNS’ Payments Market business. He is responsible for identifying and driving growth across the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific regions and is focused on meeting the unique requirements of TNS’ customers.