Networks Supporting Health Care Pressed Even More

Curt Kwak, CIO, Proliance Surgeons
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Curt Kwak, CIO, Proliance Surgeons

Increased use of electronic applications in the healthcare industry has transformed many Health IT organizations across the country. The need for scalable and fully functional networks is no longer a desire, but an absolute requirement in today’s healthcare world.

Networking in general has come a long way. Yes, I know people take things like smartphones and Wi-Fihot spots for granted today, but we all need to pause and think about how things werejust a few years back.

My career began in the telecommunications industry, as an engineer for a wireless communication company. This company eventually became very familiar Wireless carrier named T-Mobile, thanks to billions of dollars exchanging hands in spinoffs and acquisitions. It was a great environment for a young technical professional to develop his chops in those wild and wacky days. Back then, getting a T-1 (1.5 Megabits per second) was a feat, as many backend signaling systems worked off 56 kilobits per second connections to exchange wireless signals between mobile switching centers. Think about that. 56 kilobits per second was what the wireless industry relied on for wireless telecommunications in the early days.  Today, if you don’t get 6 to 10 Megabits per second internet connection at home, you are disappointed!

Text messaging (as we know of today) didn’t exist back then. It was called “SMS” or Short Message Service that went from phone to phone. At the time, this function and voice calls/voice mails were pretty much all you got out of a revolutionary “digital” phone, using CDMA and the international standard called GSM. 

  ‚ÄčInnovation is not just developing a new idea or a way, but also using an existing way better  

The thought of accessing the internet, playing online games, or watching a streaming movie on your phone were just dreams back then.

Today, I’m amazed with what we have at our finger tips from a technology perspective. However, like most of my peers out there, ‘to satisfactorily deliver technology to end users’ is something that we all are trying to do every day. We have more challenges than successes, but we don’t stop trying. As the demands on the IT networks increase and get more complex, the design is no longer building the biggest network “link” to the hospital or a clinic. The costs are lower and more network connectivity are available, but even at 100 Megabits per second, the users continue to experience slowness, timeouts and lag. So as experienced networking professionals, we have to think, “How do we make this work better?” We build a super highway, but we are still seeing traffic jams and commute times have not improved. Why?

Let’s look at what kind of cars are driving on these super highways, or, more pertinent to this discussion, let’s take a snapshot of how the healthcare industry is utilizing the IT networks today.

The increase in use of electronic applications (EMRs, PACs, IP-based biomedical devices, even Telemedicine) has integrated the networks aspart of patient care. Use of Wi-Fi is no longer nice, but has becomea requirement now as mobile devices have transformed to a level where they have become essential tools for treating patients. The lower cost of mobile devices, their improvement on encryption and security equals significant increase in mobility in our clinical areas. Also the demand to provide public Wi-Fi access for our patients is growing. You know where I’m going with this.

Suffice to say, it isn’t about having the biggest network because like highways, the more you add (lanes), more traffic (cars) you will see. Today’s networks must place the highest emphasis on data traffic management, just like stop lights or traffic meters to help improve the congestion. Example would be like segmenting certain traffic (high content traffic like images) to different/separate routes or critical data (like real time patient records, or pharmaceutical data) over a prioritized/less congested route. 

The focus on quality and customer satisfaction will continue to push the technology to newer levels. How do we stay ahead of this curve as well as the ever growingexpectations of our end users? This is a deep and complex question that we will continue to grapple on a daily basis.

Seamless Experience for Our clinical staff is the key

Meaningful use has laid the gauntlet on how the clinical staff will deliver patient care. There is no turning back from our electronic environment. The clinical community has also told the technical teams that unless the usability of these applications (EMR) are either the same or better than how they always practiced (on paper), they are not going to be happy and that care for their patients will suffer. IT services are complex to begin with and when you fold in these expectations, things become pretty darn daunting.

IT services delivered in healthcare is tricky because of its dynamic nature, and the economic, social, and government pressures placed on our industry every day. I do believe that one of the biggest steps we all can take is to collaborate with each other so that we stop reinventing the wheel. Innovation is not just developing a new idea or a way, but also using an existing way better. This includes how we should manage large and complex IT networks differently.

How do we learn from each other to not find black or white solutions but share each other’s stories openly to help each other navigate their own waters better? I think we lose when we try to find that perfect answer. The key lies in the effort to fix things and how much you learn so that you can apply these best practices in the future: Continuous Improvement!  Remember, life is never black and white, a wise mentor told me earlier in my career. 

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