What networks and the Internet of Things are doing for health care

Why service assurance matters more than ever.

IT in healthcare
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With budgets and resources becoming ever tighter, the health care industry, in common with many others, is undergoing a significant digital transformation. Advances in digital technology are proving to be a great benefit, enabling health care providers to do more with less.

The ability to securely access a patient’s Electronic Medical Records (EMR) and their diagnostic test results in real time, from virtually any device, regardless of location, is now largely taken for granted. Not only does it improve a health care provider’s operational efficiency, but it can also allow for more accurate diagnoses and inform a patient’s ongoing treatment plan. Likewise, the introduction of e-prescriptions, and almost ubiquitous Wi-Fi connectivity throughout hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, have reduced the volume of administrative tasks, allowing frontline operatives to concentrate more on their primary task of delivering high-quality health care to their patients.

At the same time, the ongoing adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the development of connected wearable devices and Remote Patient Monitoring is opening up innovative new ways of tracking and trending patients’ health and measuring the efficacy of their treatment.

Pharma giant Novartis, for example, is carrying out research in conjunction with Propeller Health and Qualcomm to develop a connected inhaler for use in the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A sensor connects the inhaler to a mobile app which passively records and transmits usage data, allowing doctors to accurately monitor whether or not a patient is adhering to the prescribed treatment plan.

And in New York, cloud research firm Medidata is working with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to test the use of activity trackers on its patients with multiple myeloma to monitor the effects of their treatment, enabling the hospital to make ongoing incremental adjustments and improvements.

The benefits of employing digital technologies such as these are clear, both in terms of operational efficiency and patient health. The increased complexity these applications introduce to a health care provider’s networks, however, can be responsible for performance issues and potential vulnerabilities and can represents something of a challenge for network managers.

Complicating matters

With the organic nature of a hospital, in which patients, staff and visitors are continuously moving in and out of its campus, and in which a variety of digital devices are mobile and are added and removed on an ongoing basis, it’s clear that demands on its network will be hard to predict. Better insight into the performance of applications and services across the network is therefore vital.

Take, for example, real-time access to patient records. health care staff today generally expect to have almost instantaneous access to information so, when they experience a delay, they’re likely to blame the EMR service. Similarly, when they don’t get the message approving a patient’s medical insurance, they’ll hold the email system responsible. And with e-prescriptions now mandatory in some U.S. states, network or application slowdowns will not be an acceptable excuse for returning to paper prescriptions. 

The source of faults such as these may well be with a supporting infrastructure or supporting service, however, rather than with the actual EMR service or email system itself. It may be the result of a configuration issue, say, or a bandwidth problem, another application behaving poorly that impacts this service, or perhaps due to a poorly designed application. Without full visibility into the network and other infrastructure dependencies though, it would be hard to diagnose and remedy the fault at source.

To complicate matters, many of the key services and applications upon which a health care provider relies tend to be multi-vendor, which requires IT teams to ensure that all moving parts are working in conjunction with each other, without any friction. These services will be running across both physical and virtualized environments, as well as private, public and hybrid cloud environments, adding layers of complexity and making it harder to achieve full visibility.

The impact of outages

Any issues with services and applications that may arise from challenges around network and infrastructure complexity and siloed, multi-vendor technologies can have a knock-on effect on a health care provider’s ability to deliver high-quality patient care.  A delay in accessing information such as appointment times, medical images, diagnostic data or drug interactions, for example, can have a negative impact on a patient’s journey through the health care system.

It’s not hard to see, therefore, how network, application or service downtime can be especially challenging for health care providers, even when it’s scheduled. An unscheduled outage, due to an application error or breach, can further amplify problems, so it’s particularly concerning to learn that hospitals and health systems are currently coming under attack from cybercriminals at a rate of almost one a day. And with one in five health care organizations reporting more than 5,000 devices connected to their network, each of which represents a potentially exploitable endpoint, the need for visibility and the value of service and security assurance can, quite literally, be seen as a matter of life and death.

health care providers will continue to adopt innovative new digital services as they look to improve their business efficiency and the quality of the services they deliver and, as they do so, will increasingly depend on high availability. The increasing use of IoT applications and services, for example, means that should a delay or an outage in network or application performance occur, the delivery of patient care could be impacted, potentially proving harmful to patients.

The ongoing digital transformation of the industry, and the adoption of IoT technology in particular, has certainly improved the speed and safe delivery of high-quality health care. Due to the ongoing development of digital technologies however, and in the face of a constant and growing threat to network performance from malicious outsiders, there has never been a more critical need for comprehensive visibility and robust service and security assurance.

Eileen Haggerty is Senior Director Enterprise Business Operations at NETSCOUT.

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