Network Connectivity: The Healthcare Lifeline

By Bob Zemke, director of healthcare solutions, Extreme Networks


Although network connectivity is necessary for businesses to function in every industry, it is critical for those within healthcare. From ensuring clinical applications stay online to facilitating clinician communications, Wi-Fi plays an essential role in patient safety. But it doesn’t end there.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more prevalent, so do security concerns between connected medical devices and equipment used in today’s hospitals. Because healthcare organizations cannot rely on these devices to individually have robust security capabilities or even updated OS firmware, they must ensure their Wi-Fi networks provide a more granular level of security to address the risks that reside inside the firewalled hospital network.

Here we’ll explore how reliable and secure network connectivity not only facilitates administrative functions within healthcare organizations, but improves outcomes and increases patient safety. You’ll also discover what healthcare organizations should be doing to prevent security vulnerabilities.

Network Connectivity and Patient Outcomes

When we’re thinking about network connectivity in healthcare, we can divide it into three categories: patient critical, mission critical, and life critical.

Patient critical situations include guest Wi-Fi, meal ordering, and patient entertainment, education, and engagement services. In today’s competitive healthcare environment, the quality of the patients’ network experience can make a big difference in their level of satisfaction. While this tier of connectivity is not critical for high-risk situations, it is important for patient well-being, which is directly connected to patient outcomes.

For example, it’s often difficult for patients to understand the medical terminology doctors use to explain their conditions. Having the ability to research what the physician is explaining gives patients an opportunity to ask pertinent questions, which can help them feel in control. Without high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity, this wouldn’t be an easy or quick task. 

Another example from my own personal experience was when I had to take my young son to the ER due to a broken arm. In a stressful situation like this, minutes can feel like hours, especially when trying to occupy an active and injured toddler. Luckily, we live in the age of iPhones and Netflix so I was able to keep him busy while we waited. By the time my son was receiving treatment, he was a much calmer patient which made it easier on the clinicians working with us. 

On the other hand, mission critical circumstances include ensuring EMR, imaging, lab, and pharmacy systems as well as patient security systems are running properly. Without internet connectivity, the disruption of any one of these systems could lead to a safety issue for patients.

If an EMR can’t be accessed or lab results cannot be rapidly retrieved, delays in patient care can happen, which increase the likelihood of complications. Additionally, if a security system shuts down, it can lead to safety issues for patients, the facility’s staff, and any visitors that may be in the building.

Finally, the life critical tier encompasses the systems that are directly associated with keeping patients alive. This includes clinician communications, telemetry monitoring, and nurse call systems. Wi-Fi connectivity ensures physicians and other healthcare staff are reachable everywhere on the hospital campus—while walking between buildings, within stairwells and elevators, even on helicopter pads. This way, if a patient emergency occurs, they are immediately notified and can respond to the situation as quickly as possible.

Securing the Network

In order to ensure the security of the entire organization, and particularly patient health information (PHI), healthcare providers must invest in a high-capacity Wi-Fi network with stringent security protocols and capabilities.

Ensuring network security requires that your network vendor work directly with the medical device manufacturers. Some vendors such as Extreme Networks conduct interoperability and security testing with life critical devices to ensure they are properly and securely supported by the network. For example, devices like infusion pumps have been around for years, tend to use older operating systems and depend on network protocol such as multicast. The network must secure all older devices that lack proper security, as well as new devices that have up-to-date security measures.

Deploying a network that can isolate medical devices from the rest of the network through hypersegmentation is another way to ensure healthcare network security. Network access control capabilities allow network administrators to authorize network device access based on location, time of day, and function. By keeping medical devices virtually separated from all of the known and unknown BYOD devices, an attack on one of the mobile devices won’t lead to a medical device hack as well.

Lastly, closely monitoring the network using network application analytics solutions allows administrators to identify and mitigate any security issues as they arise. Analytics allow IT staff to track IoT, application, and overall network performance and behavior, alerting the staff that there may be a security incident. With a centralized management system that leverages automation, monitoring is streamlined and simplified for administrators.

Staying Safe, Secure, and Stable

A customer of mine recently stated “Wi-Fi is like oxygen: we can’t live without it.” When it comes to a hospital’s WLAN, all of these areas are critically important and it is up to the hospital’s IT staff to ensure that services are optimally delivered.

In many ways, a healthy network means healthy outcomes for patients. Partnering with a networking vendor who can provide solutions that meet the facility’s specific needs and that is rated highly in its support services will ensure that the system continually keeps patients, staff, and visitors safe.

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.