Hospital Networks Take Key Role in Healthcare as IT Makes Further Clincial Advances

Hospital CIOs stress the need for constant wireless connectivity, but wired networks also have a role in health IT.

By Fred O'Connor
Tue, July 31, 2012

IDG News Service (Boston Bureau) — The health care industry's increased use of electronic medical records (EMRs), wireless medical devices and personal mobile technology has turned hospital networks into important components in patient treatment. Practicing medicine now requires maintaining constant wireless connectivity and possibly managing wired network traffic if doctors and nurses are to fully leverage health IT according to health care professionals.

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As IT's role in health care expanded from basic tasks on desktops to the more complex functions involving EMRs and clinical care, the network's importance grew, said Jon Morris, CIO and senior vice president, of the WellStar Health System, which operates hospitals, urgent care centers and medical practices in the Atlanta area.

"When we first started out doing relatively simple tasks the technology worked great," said Morris, who has served as an emergency department physician at WellStar Kennestone Hospital for 26 years. Health IT has advanced "a long ways from the days when you had a single lab test flipping up on the screen," he said.

Now networks carry EMRs as well as the extensive amounts of clinical data that they store. Wi-Fi allows wireless blood pressure cuffs to automatically transfer readings to a patient's chart and permits doctors to view lab results on their iPad. Wired networks also play a role in health IT and handle large radiology image files and ensure backup connectivity between hospitals and data centers.

"A critical piece of rolling out an EMR is the network environment," said Jack Kowitt, executive vice president of business development at health IT consulting firm Anthelio. With EMRs every transaction and data exchange passes through the infrastructure and that places unprecedented capacity and quality demands on the network, he added.

This infrastructure allows medical staff at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems' hospitals, nursing homes and physician groups to access and update patient EMRs across the organization, said Cathy Bruno, its CIO and vice president.

"To have a single unified electronic patient record across all our locations, so that information is available no matter where our patients access care, we need network connectivity," she said. "It would be impossible without network connectivity."

This connectivity comes at a costly price, said Morris. Developing reliable networks means expensive revamps of existing facilities since most health care providers are not building new hospitals that include the required infrastructure, he said.

"Hospitals are going to have to make tremendous investments in infrastructure," he said, as they overhaul dated buildings that were "never built for a robust N-class wireless network. Reliability comes into play if you tell me the only place I can get lab results and tests is a computer."

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