The enterprise network is the lifeblood of a healthcare organization. An unreliable wide area network (WAN) – one that goes down often or that suffers from traffic spikes – is not just an inconvenience or waste of dollars. It can threaten patients’ lives.

Today’s Top Healthcare Network Challenges

Today’s healthcare enterprises face numerous challenges when it comes to the network, any of which has the potential to disrupt essential clinical or administrative operations. Here are some of the most critical concerns:

  • A highly distributed organizational structure: Most healthcare organizations have remote or satellite offices such as local urgent care clinics and individual doctors’ offices. Giving them all consistently secure and reliable access to critical healthcare information to meet patient service levels and maintain compliance is costly and difficult to achieve with a traditional complex and diverse WAN.
  • A patchwork of disparate networks: Many of the WANs that tie together satellite offices like doctors’ offices and outlying clinics, and that connect them to the Internet, are not in sync. Instead, such local networks are often a patchwork of technologies from different network providers, creating a conglomerate network with no visibility. This makes it difficult to monitor for issues and manage resources effectively. This also raises the risk of Shadow IT activities or security vulnerabilities that can’t be detected because of the lack of visibility.
  • The capacity and security requirements of the Internet of Things (IoT): The amount of connected medical devices has risen sharply over the past several years, according to a 2017 Accenture survey. The value of IoT in healthcare is growing at a whopping 38.1% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) and is projected to reach $163 billion by 2020. And by 2022, the healthcare sector is predicted to be number one for IoT app development. The demands of these devices can seriously weigh down the network and drag down operations. Today, the average hospital room can have up to 20 devices attached to the network. Because some of these are more important than others – think blood pressure or temperature-measuring devices – the network has to be intelligent enough to make sure urgent information is transmitted before lower-priority data. Then there is security. Recent highly publicized attacks have illustrated that IoT devices are vulnerable to hacking and being taken over by cybercriminals.
  • Security: Healthcare organizations are prime targets for hackers due to the wealth of sensitive patient data called personal health information (PHI). Halfway through 2017 alone, millions of patient records have been exposed or stolen due to cybercriminals seeking this data. This has proven more profitable than credit card or even bank account data on the dark Web. Medical professionals are also increasingly worried that hackers could manipulate sensitive networked medical equipment, which could inflict harm on individual patients. To prevent these issues, robust controls are needed to protect the network at all times.
  • Compliance: The HITECH Act beefed up HIPAA, which requires all healthcare organizations to keep PHI safe and private. This requirement is not just for the organizations and employees themselves – HITECH extended the PHI compliance umbrella of HIPAA to anyone that works or partners with a healthcare organization. That includes people who work at external labs, or who provide equipment to the healthcare organization. This increases the need for greater visibility and control of PHI. HITECH also increased the penalties for any PHI-related data breaches. In addition, healthcare reform changed several compliance mandates, including the rules for electronic fund transfer compliance.

How IT Teams Can Combat Top Healthcare Challenges

With healthcare network and technology challenges becoming more complex every day, IT departments are looking for more simplicity in their solutions. Recently CIOs have been looking to software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) to solve many of their issues.

  • Get visibility across the entire enterprise network: To keep the WAN performing up to expectations and without downtime depends on your ability to see what is happening through its many segments and endpoints, partners with access to patient records. SD-WAN gives you clear visibility into the comprehensive WAN, enabling you to monitor and report on issues in real time. SD-WAN technology can even measure key performance indicators (KPIs) on each individual data packet. This means you can keep critical network resources online even in the middle of a traffic spike or other kind of network disruption.
  • Centrally manage networks: SD-WAN is network-transport agnostic. It will work with different networks (MPLS, broadband, or wireless connections) and across network providers. A centralized SDN controller and supporting software interface enables you to monitor and control all your network connections and manage applications from a centralized location. For example, this could enable you to streamline management of your electronic health record (EHR) system, reduce operating costs and improve the patient experience. You can apply the bandwidth needed to support large and latency-sensitive traffic from VoIP telephony, medical-image file transfers, video and other demanding digital assets while keeping the network performing optimally.
  • Prioritize traffic and applications: Not all traffic is created equal. An alert from a heart-monitoring device is more important than a routine administrative email, so you can instruct the network to give higher priority, supporting bandwidth and security to such traffic. You can create policies that prioritize everything from video to IoT devices in this way. And such policies can be implemented universally or customized for each office location.
  • Improve security: Healthcare organizations must comply with a growing portfolio of regulatory and security regulations. With SD-WAN, you can easily segment the network so that if one application – say the guest WiFi access system – is compromised, the rest of the network devices and data remains secure. You can also set rigorous security policies from the central dashboard so your remote sites have the same security protections as the central hospital or clinic. And since new threats are constantly emerging, being able to send out an updated security policy to all locations simultaneously – without having to make manual changes at individual sites – keeps your network secure while reducing operational expenses (OpEx).

In Summary

Each industry has its own set of networking challenges, but the healthcare industry is at the very top. Healthcare organizations are beginning to understand that they need a more robust, reliable, and trusted network infrastructure to operate efficiently and safely, and to service both patients and doctors well. To that end, they are increasingly turning to SD-WAN to provide the appropriate balance of security, manageability, operational efficiency, and performance.

This article was originally published in CenturyLink Bright Ideas.

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