Healthcare at the Edge: How an Agile Network Can Help Improve Outcomes

An agile, policy-driven network provides the foundation for healthcare organizations to face unexpected challenges

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By: Samuel Hill, Senior Manager - Healthcare at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company

The last 18 months have stressed and challenged healthcare provider organizations in ways once thought unimaginable. Beyond the emotional and physical toll wrought upon healthcare workers, the stress to IT networks throughout healthcare systems globally exposed issues and corresponding opportunities to reimagine how those institutions manage network architecture to improve healthcare outcomes. 

Healthcare organizations must balance the needs of various subscribers: patients, providers, staff, and visitors, among many others. The network must connect expansive environments that include Medical IoT devices, provider mobile tablets, and the rapidly expanding digital life each patient and guest brings on their devices, all while improving security posture and increasing agility.

Hospital IT groups were already at capacity with managing the competing and often divergent priorities within healthcare, which has led to skyrocketing levels of technical debt. This trend becomes amplified in rural hospital settings where they rely on fewer staff and IT generalists for a wide variety of specific technical concerns.

Now in the late stages of the pandemic, healthcare IT teams must manage the everyday issues of running a network amidst a complex environment, and now they are tasked with extending connectivity for new initiatives:

--Develop long-term hybrid work environments for employees to work remotely at home or in the hospital or clinic.

--Ramp new telehealth applications and functionality to extend patient care beyond the walls of healthcare facilities.

-- Extend temporary Wi-Fi networks to clinical environments when and where they are needed – be it parking lots, hockey arenas, or cruise ships – for administering mobile healthcare services.

These new initiatives have led to an increased focus on network agility to meet an uncertain future for the healthcare organization. How can the digital transformation initiatives flourish when executed on an unstable, un-secure, and complicated network? Health IT needs better tools to understand what is on its network, increase deployment flexibility, and better balance the cost of meeting any future challenge, either from the business or from the community served.

Knowing What's on the Network Through Policy Decisions

The continued adoption of IoT biomedical devices paired with the need for mobile connectivity for all constituents strains healthcare organizations, including an organization’s understanding of what devices are on the network and how these devices need to be provisioned, accessed, and secured.

With clear visibility and control over how and when mobile and IoT devices connect to the network, supplied through a software-defined networking infrastructure, healthcare IT staff can realize greater convenience and productivity. Automating network access control solutions enable devices to be discovered and identified automatically, whether it’s a hospital-issued mobile device, point-of-care testing (POCT) device, or anything a patient brings with them.

Once connected, continuous monitoring of devices will ensure appropriate behavior within assigned security parameters. Better visibility into the network, tight control over devices, and constant monitoring to protect against compromise enable IT to mitigate mobility and Medical IoT's inherent risks and embrace the convenience and productivity gains they offer.  

SD-WAN: The Flexibility to Prioritize

Within the software-defined network structure, software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) can assure critical application performance by utilizing robust connections and simultaneously routing non-essential traffic through other links. Through a centrally managed SD-WAN, the IT team can build in reliability, redundancy, and automatic failover to prevent any site outages. In healthcare, network outages are intolerable, so SD-WAN becomes a means to ensure uptime and application performance.

SD-WAN can also help network administrators future-proof the network for emerging needs. With the right network design, health IT can rapidly support the unified communications tools required to create effective telehealth programs that connect doctors and patients or temporary call centers to handle any future influx of calls.

More specifically, SD-WAN architecture provides remote connection flexibility for the extension and deployment of small networks to be used temporarily for triage and treatment that are high performance and policy compliant. It can also rapidly and securely interconnect healthcare agencies during a crisis, joint partnerships, or M&A.

Additionally, software-defined networking approaches can be leveraged for automation, freeing up network administration to tackle higher-level tasks and to respond more quickly to changing priorities.

Future-Ready NaaS for a More Predictable P&L

With an ever-changing landscape of priorities, today's business needs will likely change in the future. Historically, this uncertainty has left health IT resistant to change their overall infrastructure, but this allowed technical debt to accumulate at an unhealthy pace.

Using a Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) framework for technology acquisition and management, the health IT organization moves from a cost center to a strategic partner in the business. In short, they allow the application transport mechanism (also known as “the network”) to behave like an expected utility and map their consumption to the organization's needs. This approach ensures that the healthcare organization will have the needed capacity while not overpaying for legacy equipment and to help reduce technical debt levels.

With a true NaaS, the refresh cycle becomes a less stressful and a more regular part of the organizational life. By more frequently updating equipment, health IT can get closer to technology's innovation edge while not committing significant budget or resources to achieve their goals.

Better Healthcare Outcomes Born from an Agile Network Infrastructure

No matter what the future may hold, an effective agile network will provide the foundation for healthcare organizations to match the right technology with the future needs of the communities they serve, both today and well into the future.

Want to learn more about the healthcare-specific network tools and services offered by Aruba? Visit the healthcare networking solutions page.

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