Networking Ups Healthcare Efficiency

By Mike Miller Print this article Print

Upgrading an outdated network and installing a VOIP telephony system helps Samaritan Regional Health System save money and reduce frustration for professionals and patients.

Samaritan Regional Health System is a community-based health care system that has been serving residents in Ashland, Ohio, and surrounding counties for nearly 100 years. The system depends on technology to support health care professionals in their efforts to diagnose, treat and heal their patients.
Until recently, Samaritan’s network infrastructure was hindering that work. To resolve this critical problem, the health system deployed a backbone upgrade to facilitate secure wired and wireless access, along with a new VOIP telephony system. Network Administrator Mike Miller describes the deployment and its results.

In IT, we hear the term “business critical” often, but in the IT department of a hospital, those words take on a new meaning. In our industry, infrastructure failure can truly be a life-or-death situation. Technology is crucial for handling privacy issues surrounding patient data, as well as cost-containment efforts to rein in operational expenses while keeping the quality of patient care high.

The administrators, doctors and nurses at Samaritan and at our affiliated physician practice offices have long wanted to leverage the best, most forward-thinking technology to help them diagnose, treat and heal their patients. Until recently, our IT network was hampering that progress.

Our legacy backbone equipment was not up to the job of basic connectivity, let alone the newer technologies our staff wanted to implement. Our network infrastructure was best described as the Wild West, and it was becoming more difficult to predict where the next network failure would occur.

Inconsistent and unreliable, the network of end-of-life switches offered limited visibility into access policies. With more than 750 employees across seven locations constantly touching the network, we had little insight regarding who was logging in and out, and what they were using for resources.

Our staff spent most of their time responding to trouble tickets and trying to resolve the same old issues. The flat, static nature of our infrastructure made it impossible to direct or prioritize network resources to support more critical applications or devices. We quickly realized that we lacked the resources needed to become a proactive, strategic IT organization.

Asking the Right Questions

We started reviewing our IT goals and mapping them back to the hospital’s patient care objectives. We asked ourselves:

•    What are the most critical applications and services our staff uses daily, and how can we prioritize them?    
•    Will we have to do a complete rip-out and forklift upgrade, or can we salvage any of our existing infrastructure?
•    If we can preserve any existing infrastructure, will it be compatible with whatever we deploy next?
•    How can we oversee a network upgrade, learn about our new network technology and then manage a new network each day without adding more IT operations staff?
•    How can we use technology to foster true collaboration between physicians, nurses, administrators and patients?
•    Is there a security solution that will automate access policies based on user ID, so we can finally get a handle on network compliance?

We wanted to offer our staff quick, easy access to other caregivers and employees in the hospital network to support collaboration and information sharing. We planned to do that by consolidating the telephony system the hospital and its satellite practice offices used.

We also wanted to streamline data across departments and locations, without compromising the data’s integrity and safety. Too often, one department updated a patient’s record, but a lag in infrastructure stopped that information from getting to other staff members who needed it. Further, we needed to build a network that would allow us to use state-of-the-art, wire-free patient-monitoring devices. Also, we wanted a secure connection so patients and visitors could access the Internet safely.

Solution Wish List

After looking over our network needs, we created a list of criteria for each one. A robust, unified backbone that would give us the ability to build out compatible VOIP and wireless devices on our own timetable was a must. We also required a simple, centralized management system.

In addition, we needed a solution with built-in security that would allow us to create and maintain access policies that complied with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). All this had to come at a price
we could justify to the hospital’s administration.

After evaluating leading infrastructure and security vendors, we went with Siemens Enterprise Communications and its network and security infrastructure division, Enterasys. We felt they had the standards-based architecture, interoperability, security, reliability and cost-performance ratio to deliver what we needed. The bonus: All the company’s networking components are certified to be compatible with Dräger wireless patient monitors, including their heart monitors, which will be the first wire-free patient devices to be integrated into the new infrastructure.

This article was originally published on 2010-08-17
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