Solution provider takeaway: Are you thinking about adding healthcare IT consulting services to your portfolio? Learn the ins and outs of healthcare networking and other healthcare IT services in this comprehensive guide for networking solution providers and consultants.
Table of contents:
•Unified communications in healthcare
With the stimulus plan pumping billions of dollars into healthcare IT, there are many opportunities for networking service providers that are interested in bolstering their business with healthcare IT services. Hospitals blood banks, doctors' offices and other medical centers all need secure data networking and are willing to spend to secure medical records and confidential data.
Before learning the technology behind healthcare IT services, networking solution providers must first understand the opportunities that exist. This guide will take you through healthcare networking opportunities, as well as the key technology behind healthcare IT consulting services.
Other resources on healthcare IT opportunities
Due to the sensitive nature of healthcare data, laws were enacted to protect patient privacy. The best known of these laws is HIPAA, which dictates how patient medical records are to be handled. An important aspect of HIPAA is the definition of personal health information. HIPAA requires that hospitals encrypt data, hardware, software and medical devices, presenting an opportunity for networking solution providers that offer encryption services.
Another key term is meaningful use, which is essentially the critical use of electronic health records (EHR) and related technology. In February 2009, the HITECH Act within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allotted $19 billion for hospitals and doctors' offices that demonstrated meaningful use of EHR and other technology. However, "meaningful use" was not officially defined until July 2010. Now that meaningful use has an actual definition, IT resellers and service providers can take advantage of the still-untouched $19 billion.
This is a huge opportunity for networking solution providers. In order to cash in, hospitals must meet all meaningful use criteria and send a report to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that proves they've been following the criteria for at least 90 days, which is labeled as Stage 1 (this must be maintained for a year after the initial 90 days). These "stages" require that the healthcare provider has been following meaningful use for a specific amount of time. At Stage 1, the provider gets the first payment, and a Stage 2 (showing meaningful use for longer than Stage 1) is in the works to be defined sometime in the next year. A possible Stage 3 has been discussed, but until Stage 2 is defined, solution providers don't need to worry about that.
Depending on the size of the hospital, payments over five years can total in the millions. For doctors' offices, total payment can reach up to $44,000. This is a huge chunk of change for any networking solution provider. This is not an implement-and-go opportunity -- most hospitals do not have an extensive IT staff to ensure the meeting of meaningful use requirements. Networking solution providers will probably need to handhold hospitals through Stages 1 and 2, which essentially guarantees months of business.
Besides just hospitals and doctors' offices, there is a strong opportunity in health information exchanges (HIEs). These third-party entities facilitate the mobilization of healthcare information across facilities while maintaining the security of the data. Essentially, HIEs try to make it possible for hospitals and clinics to send patient information back and forth to reduce redundancies, such as repeat testing. HIEs also receive federal funding and must meet a set of nationally recognized interoperability standards. Networking solution providers can help make sure that HIEs meet these standards and that they will also meet the standards of the future Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN). That being said, some HIEs are far more advanced than others. Those that are not advanced will need the help of a networking solution provider to improve their HIE services. (For more information on HIE and other healthcare terms, download this explanatory .pdf.)
Other resources on healthcare IT regulations
In order to offer healthcare networking services, you must understand key areas of networking within healthcare IT services. There are many aspects of networking that apply to healthcare IT services, but we're starting with the biggest. This section examines wireless networks and unified communications.
Setting up a wireless network in a hospital is not the same as setting up a wireless network in other businesses. In a coffee shop, for example, people are transmitting all types of data -- but it's rarely a life-or-death situation. In a hospital, however, wireless networks are transmitting information that includes electronic health records and other sensitive data. Also, access to medical files must be as efficient as possible to ensure that a doctor has all the necessary information to make decisions about patients. This means that the wireless networks must be more secure and more reliable.
Networking solution providers must also keep in mind that the demand on a hospital's network is constantly changing. When planning a hospital network, plan for extra bandwidth in the coming years as emerging technologies become more prevalent in healthcare, including unified communications.
Hospital architecture is also vastly different from that of an office building. Walls are often thicker, and there are numerous rooms emitting radiology, which adversely affects wireless network performance. Networking solution providers must learn how to get around these wireless network problems unique to healthcare networking.
It is vital that you understand the best way to build a wireless network for your customers, as well as maintaining and managing healthcare wireless networks.
Other wireless networking resources
Unified communications in healthcare
Unified communications (UC) brings different hardware and software together to ease communication among users in a network. This technology has become extremely useful in the healthcare environment. Doctors and nurses who would have carried multiple pagers and cell phones can roll all communications into one device, making it easier to move about the hospital. Doctors and other hospital staff are always on the move, and being able to communicate more efficiently can be a matter of life and death.
A major facet of unified communications is presence. Presence allows network administrators and other network users to know a user's status or availability at any given time. For example, if users are logged in to chat, they can put up an away message that lets people know that they are in the break room or the cafeteria. Without it, time can be wasted on trying to find a doctor in a large hospital that may not have cell phone reception in every area. Time can also be wasted when trying to decide whether a specific doctor is worth waiting for or whether a substitute should be called in to make a decision about a patient. In a hospital, this expedites the process of trying to find a specific doctor or nurse (or a substitute, if need be), saving precious time that could be crucial to a patient's life.
While UC has a somewhat loose definition, a UC system rollout generally includes converting an old public switched telephone network (PSTN) to IP telephony and smartphones. By relying on a UC system, hospitals can more efficiently serve patients by ensuring that healthcare personnel are always easily accessible and reachable.
Other healthcare IT resources
Hospitals, medical centers and doctors' offices all over the country have been making advances in data networking technologies through trial and error. In this section of our healthcare networking guide, you'll see examples of how hospitals use networking technology, including 802.11n wireless LANs, network flow analysis, and network performance management.
- Solid 802.11n deployment prepares medical center for future demands
- Using network flow analysis to improve troubleshooting and performance
- Wireless in hospitals: One organization's 802.11n wireless LAN
- How network performance management can save money, boost applications
- Hospital chain boosts indoor cellular with distributed antenna system
- Using NAC endpoint fingerprinting to inventory dumb devices
- Boston Medical Center's communication strategy sets future groundwork