Wireless Networking: Help or Hindrance for Health Care IT?
Medical professionals can’t afford to wait for critical data. But while many hospitals have embraced mobile and cloud technologies to empower staff and enhance patient care, the increasing need for reliable wireless networking has created a new set of problems. What happens if the network suddenly crashes or is compromised by malicious actors? How can IT teams ensure that wireless connections and new Internet of Things (IoT) devices are a help and not a hindrance for users?
There’s big money in the health care market. Research firm MarketsandMarkets, the health care IT solutions market should reach almost $230 billion by 2020. Another report from the same firm projects the market for real-time location systems in the health industry will hit $3 billion over the next few years. Meanwhile, wearable devices such as health trackers and internet-enabled smartwatches aim to simplify medical professionals’ jobs by providing a steady stream of pertinent patient information. The problem: When it comes to critical data, there’s no room for error.
Consider the doctor midway through life-saving surgery using augmented reality to monitor vital signs and predict potential problems — what happens if network connectivity fails or the technology suddenly “locks up”? Another scary scenario: What if patient data is suddenly inaccessible after a security breach, leaving staff with no way to track down medical histories now that everything has been digitized?
New Challenges for Wireless Networking
In addition to sudden tech failures and the threat of cybercriminal activity, IT teams also face new challenges surrounding the use of IoT-enables devices and guest access to wireless networks. In fact, a survey by Extreme Networks found that 77 percent of hospitals said their wireless connections were used for guest access, while just 66 percent pointed to clinical communications.
The use of IoT devices, including wearable sensors for patients and more mundane tech like wireless links for printers or temperature-monitoring sensors, also has a significant impact on wireless networking. Not only do different users need differing levels of access, but if too many devices and users all try to connect at the same time, the resulting traffic could overwhelm even large-scale networks. IT departments must also deal with the emerging issue of immediacy: Doctors and nurses are familiar with the speed and responsiveness of their personal mobile devices and now expect the same from medical technology. If necessary tech isn’t user-friendly, they may bypass it in favor of more tried and true methods, even at the expense of productivity.
So, how do health care IT teams keep wireless networks up and running in the face of mobile device connections, IoT requests, cloud deployments and the increasing use of software-as-a service (SaaS) tools? It starts with the right wireless backbone. Companies need to ditch old 802.11n or 802.11g network adapters in favor of 802.11ac, which supports many users over multiple input and output channels. It’s also a good idea to invest in multiple networks — at least one for guests and another for hospital staff. This strategy provides logical separation for security and limits the chance of sudden traffic spikes. Encryption is another critical part of wireless networking success; if cybercriminals do breach the network, it’s best that whatever data they do find is complete gibberish and can’t easily be cracked.
When it comes to IT security, health care agencies are well-served by a number of best practices. First up? Analyze the network. Invest in high-quality monitoring solutions that can track the behavior of new apps or devices on the system; often, this will reveal unexpected network vulnerabilities that IT can then correct. It’s also critical to protect cloud-based and patient-facing portals against sudden downtime, while still ensuring data is protected according to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards. The best bet is to opt for a mix of public and private cloud solutions — public for the basic redundancy and resource availability, and private if sudden public outages require a hot swap to available sites.
Wireless networking is the new normal for health care agencies. For IT, this means taking steps to ensure new IoT devices and cloud-based services are a help, not a hindrance, for staff and patients alike.