Hospital IT: When Failure Is Not an Option

circuitToday’s hospital is packed with computerized systems interacting in a complicated electronic dance. Monitoring devices, life support systems, electronic medical records, closed-circuit TVs, wireless Internet, RFID tags to track patients and equipment—these are just a few of the systems that keep a hospital running smoothly. But with so many hospitals going digital, there are plenty of opportunities for system failures and inefficiencies that can hinder workflow and even harm patients. A critically ill patient can’t wait around for tech support to arrive.

Building a solid IT infrastructure is a complex undertaking for any medical facility. Administrators need access to key applications such as patient records, images, and medical encyclopedias, all of which may be stored in separate data centers. Files are getting bigger, and so are bandwidth requirements. Physicians may wish to access files from different locations—their offices, examining rooms, or even their mobile phones. Then you have the patients and guests, who need to be engaged once they step into the hospital environment. How does one design a network infrastructure that meets so many demands?

Harpreet Chadha, senior director of product management at Extreme Networks, believes in keeping it simple. Instead of designing complicated systems with multiple networks and three different operating systems, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based IT company relies on a single network, a single policy, and a single OS. “Everything is come down to a single wire,” says Chadha. Within this single network, bandwidth is portioned out for each provision. Data consolidation is another key part of the company’s strategy. Instead of being spread across 50 databases, patient records and other necessary data is consolidated to a few databases in a central location. Chadha explains that consolidation can help save energy and improve efficiency. Data is also easier to secure if it is centralized in 3 locations rather than 50.

Also important: having a strong backup and disaster recovery system, so even if the network does hit a snag, service is not interrupted. Chadha describes the company’s ExtremeXOS product as a modular system that allows applications to keep running under adverse conditions. If part of the network goes out, protocols including protection switching ensure that the data stream is routed to another section. “Availability is only as good as your weakest link,” he says.   

Companies such as SunGard Availability Services and EnVision Technologies also work in this space, helping medical facilities design and implement their IT infrastructure. Another company, Health Language, takes more of a niche approach to healthcare IT. The company’s Health Language toolset helps manage medical terminology and administrative codes within a facility’s information system. As new terminology and content is introduced, it is mapped across the system for increased accuracy and interoperability. 

On Tuesday, a nonprofit organization in Maryland was awarded a $5.5 million federal grant to help providers implement healthcare technology. With an anticipated increase in patients due to healthcare reform, an aging Baby Boomer population, the rise of mobile healthcare devices, and both consumers and providers demanding more access to medical records, our nation’s hospitals will need to be prepared to handle a lot more 1s and 0s.  Are we ready?

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