Resilience in healthcare networks

Alan Stewart-Brown, VP of EMEA at Opengear, discusses why practices need to prepare their network for the new IoT technologies hitting the sector

Reliable and secure network connectivity is vital for patient safety and clinician productivity. Yet, healthcare organisations often run on restricted budgets and legacy network systems that are expensive to run and can struggle to be efficient. At the same time, cloud services, Bring Your own Device (BYoD), Internet of Things (IoT) devices, network merges, and IT advances are continually expanding these environments and making them more complex.

Against this backdrop, healthcare networks are challenged by ever-proliferating cyber attacks, the need to consolidate networks, and unintentional downtime caused by issues like user error, weather, or accidental line cuts. If neglected, these challenges can severely damage networks and cost significant time and money to address.

Healthcare is a huge target for hackers. Ransomware attacks are increasing, causing a growing number of healthcare enterprises to shut down computer systems, including their Electronic Health Records (EHR). For example, Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center’s EHR system was down for more than a week. With hackers increasingly targeting hospitals, network resilience is essential.

Another issue healthcare organisations have to deal with is the acquisition of smaller organisations and their integration into the parent networks. Even within an existing network there is likely to be a wide variety of hardware and software.

Coupled with this, there is no way to predict when a random outage might happen. The best option is to anticipate the possibility, but many healthcare networks neglect to adequately plan ahead despite the fact that a single healthcare network outage can costs thousands of pounds per minute in lost revenue and productivity.

As health systems are increasingly tied together digitally, greater strain on the network increases the chance of a disruption. To meet demands, they must be prepared for current connectivity requirements and have the ability to scale as new applications come online.

IoT devices and connectivity at the edge
The Internet of Things is rapidly emerging and bringing many new connected endpoints into healthcare networks. In addition to PCs, smartphones, and tablets, networks may include wearable gadgets and sensors that generate new types of data. As IT projects scale and evolve with IoT, the IT infrastructure must be able to support an increasing variety of endpoints, applications, and services.

Hospitals have multipoint connectivity requirements. The epicentre of a variety of facilities such as labs, clinics, telemedicine hubs, and pharmacies may require a high capacity SD-WAN with multipoint connections in geographically distributed areas. And EHR and picture archiving and communications systems (PACS) are bandwidth-intensive applications that add additional strain to the network.

With the increased sophistication of the SD-WAN hardware, the need for 'always-on' access to that hardware is increasingly  critical. In many locations, the level of technical ability will be limited, so when an issue occurs the network team must be able to manage the equipment remotely.

When leveraging an SD-WAN network, healthcare organisations are more likely to experience a disruption because of a single point of failure at the router. Cloud services and SD-WAN are becoming core to healthcare networks. But existing technologies still struggle to overcome the problem of the last mile (the final segment of the WAN network that connects a branch, data centres, telemedicine hubs, and IoT data to SD-WAN and cloud services).

These last miles are the weakest links in a network’s connectivity. All the network traffic for a single data centre or branch may be funnelled through single links. The bandwidth of these links effectively limits the amount of data that can be transmitted to an ISP. This bottleneck can leave the network exposed to DoS attacks or basic human error leading to outages. And this last mile can even be vulnerable to physical threats like accidental fibre cuts.

Finding solutions
Today, we are starting to see a new generation of remote management solutions coming on stream to meet the growing necessities of always-on connectivity and resilience. The latest tools provide enterprise- grade security for edge and core networks with advanced security and encryption features built-in. And centralised management solutions can give organisations full visibility into their network to detect faults before they become failures.

Secure network operations tools are available that can enable healthcare providers to ship equipment to a new, remote site and provision it without the need of highly-skilled engineers. Remote deployment can help smooth the way for these transitions and limit the time and expense of needing technicians on hand for deployment and maintenance.

Once networks are connected, a centralised management system allows healthcare providers to manage hundreds of devices at various locations and have full visibility through a single pane of glass. When an outage occurs, a network can failover automatically to an alternative cellular interface to connect to the main site during an outage and manage the equipment for troubleshooting. And with Failover to Cellular™ (F2C), critical applications can still run using the router bandwidth while network problems are remotely remediated, resulting in vital business operations remaining uninterrupted when the primary internet connection is down.

Smart network management solutions give IT administrators the ability to use robust and always-available LTE connections to remotely manage and oversee switches, routers and other endpoints. Even a provider with limited budgets and just a small group of network administrators can ensure that any number of mission-critical endpoints, no matter where they’re located, are working well. By pairing IoT with Smart OOB management, healthcare organisations can rest assured that the network at the heart of their operations will function properly and that problems can be quickly identified and easily resolved. And in a sector where network failure should never be an option, even when budgets and headcount are under pressure these are critically important capabilities.