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Networks must become the heart of patient care amidst COVID-19

Networks must become the heart of patient care amidst COVID-19

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Networks must become the heart of patient care amidst COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that healthcare organisations had to rapidly adjust to a new standard of normal. Matt Valentine, Managing Director UK&I, Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise, explains how hospitals have adapted using technology during these uncertain times.

According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), healthcare expenditure is expected to outpace GDP growth over the next 15 years in almost every country. When you combine this with the long-term trend of population growth, plus the current pandemic that has ravaged healthcare systems globally, it is perhaps no wonder that healthcare providers are struggling to hold up against the sheer volume of what they are expected to support.

The immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that healthcare organisations had to rapidly adjust to a new standard of normal. From 5G-enabled remote operations to patient apps, digital innovations are being deployed to try to both ease the burden on the system and deliver an enhanced service that is increasingly being demanded by the ‘as-a-Service’ generation.

While these policies have been useful in providing continuity for both healthcare professionals and patients, they have also shed light on the disparate networks many healthcare organisations have become accustomed to. Now more than ever, reliable and secure connectivity is a key part of every healthcare institution’s fightback – bridging the gap between IT, patient care and business needs.

Home office for radiology

Like many other hospitals around the world, St. James Hospital in Dublin has been encouraging healthcare staff to work from home. This presented the hospital with several challenges, notably its ability to deliver successful outcomes for patients, even when away from the main hospital infrastructure.

The hospital’s radiology department, for example, was faced with the problem of how to handle the many high-resolution images – generated by MRI, CAT scans and X-Rays – that are digitally stored on a Patient Archiving and Communications System (PACS) platform. Due to their high resolution and the sheer volume of the associated data and the various systems which radiologists need to interact with, interpreting these images and the accompanying patient information outside of the hospital proved to be difficult.

“During the COVID-19 isolation period, this has become an even more critical constraint,” Dr Niall Sheehy, the hospital’s Consultant Radiologist, points out, “Especially if a doctor or radiologist needs to self-isolate for 14 days following suspected exposure to the virus. The hospital would simply be deprived of their radiologists who would be confined to their homes and unable to function due to the lack of remote access to the system.”

If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again
St James’ tried various ways to enable Dr Sheehy and his team to work remotely. Techniques such as virtual desktops and remote desktops failed to yield satisfactory results, with low-resolution images and high latency when accessing patient information, thereby making it difficult to make a diagnosis. Even fully replicating the workstations used by the team in their own homes, via a VPN, didn’t work as the team couldn’t interact with other hospital systems. “The only way to ensure a secure and seamless remote working experience is to extend the hospital network to the remote location or to the home,” says Dr Sheehy.

To achieve this, St. James Hospital’s IT team worked with Aruba Networks to install Remote Access Points (RAPs) in the homes of their radiology team. In doing so, the team have been able to use exact replicas of the PACS workstations they normally use, albeit plugged directly into the RAP. Dr Sheehy added: “Even with a very low latency due to the standard broadband service, [it] still allows us to have full functionality and access to services, even if it takes a little longer to download images.”

Dr Sheehy believes that during the COVID-19 pandemic, having the right technology systems in the hands of clinical staff has proven to be invaluable for those working remotely. Even under normal circumstances, if staff are on leave, or duty, and need to tend to an emergency, it will be far more efficient for the patients, the hospital and for them to benefit from this remote access. The success of the project has meant that the hospital has begun equipping their cardiologists, who need access to similar systems, with the same equipment.

Modernising healthcare for the future

Despite the valuable work of IT teams, like those at St. James Hospital, the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the severe lack of investment in healthcare network infrastructure. These solutions have not only proved possible but successful – and many weren’t even considered prior to the pandemic.

With an increasing number of patients wanting to stay home, consumer demand has further accelerated the adoption of more personalised healthcare, and the use of mobile digitally enabled and IoT connected devices. Yet many of the networks in place today were designed for static applications. If healthcare organisations are to meet the demands of both patients, staff and technology like St James Hospital did, they need to first re-examine their current network infrastructure with an eye towards upgrading them.

In many areas of healthcare, from contact tracing apps to vaccine testing, there has been an acceptance of traditional methods for getting things done, but if anything, the ongoing crisis is driving some innovations that will stay, hopefully for good.

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