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Taking Care of the Networking Demands of Hospitals

By Benjamin Vickers, Director-IT, ProMedica

Taking Care of the Networking Demands of HospitalsBenjamin Vickers, Director-IT, ProMedica

As we look at the trends in healthcare networking, a few areas of interest come to mind. With the growing demand for patients to have a more mobile and engaging experience, the hospitals’ enterprise network has become the foundation for delivering a more positive and meaningful involvement in patient care. In addition to delivering an easier-to-use network, we must also address the topic of security. Some of the technologies that are contributing to these trends include things like location grade Wi-Fi, real-time location systems (RTLS), perimeter security, redundancy and internet of things (IoT).

Hospitals have been installing wireless systems for years to varying capacities. The demand for these networks has been increasing at a very rapid rate as the quantity of devices needing wireless services increases. In addition to increasing the density of the wireless access points to provide greater accuracy in device tracking systems, other measures are being taken to provide greater availability. At ProMedica, we use access points that have dual uplink ports. This allows us to dual attach them physically to two different switches. In addition to this, we use wireless controllers that are part of a high availability pair. Within the past two years, we have been deploying all of our APs using a location grade model, designed using software for placement. In addition, we are deploying APs that have Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons in them for reducing the cost of device tracking.

In terms of RTLS, we have been focusing on device tracking to start, and have other uses for the technology in the pipeline, such as hand hygiene tracking, wireless temperature monitoring and staff security. 

"It is important for technical IT leadership to stay informed about the technologies available and what is relevant in the marketplace"

As it relates to networking, we have begun the transformation of standalone RTLS systems into unified systems using the enterprise wireless network as the backbone. Coupled with BLE and exciters placed on the network, additional use cases for RTLS are being piloted for expansion of the existing systems and opportunity for additional ROI on the systems.

The growing number of devices on the network creates new security concerns. We don’t always have control over the devices that connect to our guest networks or the vulnerabilities that they bring with them. To minimize these concerns and issues, we have deployed several systems to help. Specifically, at the edge, we are deploying advanced web filtering, next-generation firewalls (NGFW), and next-generation intrusion protection systems (NGIPS). Within the network, we are providing device isolation and network segmentation to keep different classes of traffic separate. With recent highly publicized network attacks, securing and managing thousands of IoT devices with firewalls and access control lists now seems impossible. However, there is new technology available from technology companies that combine mature and emerging technologies to create some really great solutions.

To keep all of these new devices and the demands for the enterprise network to be available 99.999 percent of the time, technologies such as 802.1aq are being deployed across the enterprise. 802.1aq allows for an extremely robust routing and switching environment by distributing the workloads while minimizing the quantity of devices needed to provide this level of availability. By utilizing the best in class packet-optical transport platforms coupled with redundant networking cores at all of the hospitals within the system, ProMedica can achieve a five-nines uptime model to the distribution layer. 

Within the datacenter, a full software-defined networking (SDN) strategy is being implemented to continue the micro-segmentation of the different applications and add additional security to the north/south interfaces in and out of the datacenter.

Healthcare has been in the IoT business long before that name was officially adopted. From telemetry devices to radiology devices, connectivity to these devices has been growing for years and becoming a requirement for charting accurate data into the electronic health record (EHR). In addition, other forms of IoT devices have begun to show up, such as temperature probes, utility meters, digital signage, security cameras and access control systems. To combat the complexity, mobility and vast security requirements of these devices, ProMedica is utilizing new systems that will provide SDN type capabilities to the end devices within our facilities. These devices, or adapters, are connected to the actual IoT device and allows us to provision the device with specific rules and policies to both secure the devices and provide the network services that it needs, easier and faster.

It is important for technical IT leadership to stay informed about the technologies available and what is relevant in the marketplace. First, keep research and learning current, which should be an almost daily priority. Second, encourage teams to do the same and encourage innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. Without the combined effort of the team, you will fail. Thank the team for the work they do. Lastly, align yourself and your goals with others in the industry that you trust and will have a positive influence on the work you do.

When we discuss networking trends, it is critical that we continue to keep security top of mind while providing easier access to the network and the systems that allow us to focus on the mission of the hospital. Networking becomes one of the fundamental pieces of the system to ensure that all other technologies are able to function every day to their highest capacity.

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