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Opinion: five IT challenges impacting the healthcare industry

The healthcare industry has been faced with a flood of challenges over the past several years. These challenges run the gamut of cost reduction, regulatory and legislative mandates, security attacks, and process changes resulting from new technology. Several of these challenges have fallen upon IT to resolve. Here are five of the top IT challenges in healthcare:

  • Minimising security breaches, reducing cyber theft and increasing patient privacy.
  • Eliminating network blind spots resulting from mergers and acquisitions.
  • Transforming of the business to align with the consumerisation of medicine.
  • Leveraging technology to ensure a competitive advantage.
  • Using technology to improve overall network performance.

Beat back the breaches: Keith Bromley.

Unfortunately, new technologies have also created new security risks. Specifically, security breaches resulting in the theft of personally identifiable information are expanding. Witness the Anthem/Blue Cross breach in 2015 that resulted in the theft of personal information for 78.8 million people. This breach had significant financial and brand impact for Anthem. There are other healthcare institutions and patients that have been victimised by security breaches in recent years which include:

In addition, hospitals and clinics are targeted by ransomware. The February 2016 attack on the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Centre and the May 2017 WannaCry attack that hit the United Kingdom’s National Health Service illustrate this point. There were at least 13 other hospitals hit by ransomware in 2016. Most ransomware victims had to shut down their computer networks, directly impacting patients, so they could initiate the remediation process from the malware attack.

But the problems for healthcare IT are not just centered on security. Company mergers and acquisitions (M&As) between hospitals and clinics is also creating network integration issues. According to a study performed by Kaufman, Hall & Associates published in July 2016, “Kaufman Hall identified 52 hospital and health system transactions in the first half of 2016, an increase of 6.1 per cent from 49 transactions recorded in the first half of 2015".

More M&As were pending for the rest of the 2016 calendar year. These resulting M&As typically translate to the creation of blind spots within IT networks because disparate corporate data networks trying to communicate with each other do not actually transmit data correctly.

Blind spots are areas where IT does not have complete visibility into what is happening on the network or how applications are behaving. Mergers between IT systems for any organisation, especially healthcare systems, take time. The problem is that patients and doctors do not have time to wait. Electronic medical records must be available at all times, for all patients.

A big area of interest for healthcare institutions is the consumerisation trend in which information is being collected and made available to mobile and web-based devices. For instance, hospitals are now embracing bring your own device (BYOD) for healthcare professionals and support the use of patient accessible Wi-Fi. However, not all consumption is equal, or linear. This service needs to be constantly managed for bandwidth hogs.

Recent years have seen an explosion of internet of things (IoT)-based medical devices. One example is the use of infusion pumps, also called smart pumps, that can disburse medication without the presence of a healthcare professional. Electronic patient monitors are another example. These devices do more than just output data periodically to the nurses’ station. Infusion pumps need to download drug libraries and WLAN-based telemetry transmitters send alarms, and waveform data, to a central station. Mission-critical medical devices and applications must transmit critical alarms in real time.

Consumerisation and the need to be competitive are key drivers for the healthcare industry. Cloud networks, IoT, BYOD, telemedicine, and other new technologies are driving change in the healthcare system. How well individual IT organisations can leverage these technology changes will ultimately determine their success. This includes visibility into potential network and application problems as a result of the new technology, and the ability to improve the performance of healthcare networks.

So, how does IT overcome these challenges? Regardless of whether the healthcare institution is a hospital, clinic, health insurance company, or any other institution, it starts with network visibility. You need to be able to see what are up against. A visibility architecture is the first place to start. A visibility architecture is a fancy term for stepping back to take a holistic look at your network, see what monitoring data is needed, where to collect the data from, and how to pass that data to monitoring and security tools. Visibility architectures typically result in the addition of taps and network packet brokers to capture and filter the monitoring data. Once you do this, you have the data needed to reduce/eliminate many security and performance related issues.

The second key function is to perform network assessments. This includes network security testing, Wi-Fi network testing, and both wireless and wired performance testing. Testing your solutions will help you overcome your challenges. Best practice is to deploy the right technology to replace outdated, manual processes. While you do not want routine testing to dominate your life, skipping it is the wrong answer, as this leads to hidden problems that can create serious issues. The best prescription is to deploy test solutions that run automated test cases for either on-demand or scheduled use cases.

Keith Bromley is senior solutions marketing manager at Ixia.

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