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Why Interconnectivity Is Crucial for Healthcare

April 4, 2019

Interconnectivity is critical in every single industry today, from manufacturing to food service and everything in between and beyond. However, in healthcare, interconnectivity can literally mean the difference between life and death. In this space, robust and flexible interconnectivity is truly paramount.

The IoT and Data Deluge in Healthcare

In the data analytics and processing space, the three V’s stand for Volume, Velocity, and Variety. Organizations today are dealing with more data from more sources than ever before, all being generated at breakneck speed. This is especially true in healthcare.

Much of this diverse data is coming from Internet of Things (IoT) devices and is dramatically transforming healthcare. While IoT is considered a potential future disruptor in many industries, it has already largely arrived in hospitals and other healthcare settings. Blood glucose monitors, pacemakers, and other critical diagnostic equipment, for example, are all now connected to the internet, streaming diverse data back to medical professionals for diagnosis and oversight. Even consumer devices like smartphones and smartwatches have a role to play in tracking patient vital signs. It’s no wonder the IoT market for healthcare hardware is expected to be worth more than $405 billion by 2026.

IoT has already proven enormously valuable for the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. Not only can they use data from IoT endpoints to better understand patients so more effective treatments can be prescribed, but sensors also help them have more effective oversight of equipment and assets. Tracking the physical location of swabs may not seem that important, but doing so helps the NHS keep costs down and ensure that staff do not spend precious time trying to track things down.

“There's really a tidal wave of data that's coming at healthcare organizations in general. They're getting data with high volume, velocity, and variety from all different types of sources. Devices like X-Rays and MRI machines, mobile billing platforms as well as non-clinical operational platforms like H.R. claims processing and billing are really coming at health care organizations and our customers in that industry. They are trying to figure out exactly how to ingest that data, how to store it appropriately and make it available for analytics and tools. Then they are figuring out how to protect it, which is front and center in the healthcare industry,” said Rick Moore, Senior Director of Cloud Services at Digital Realty.

Like any other application of the IoT, interconnectivity is a key prerequisite. Without a reliable network underpinning these applications, none of it works.

EHRs and Interconnectivity

And where is all of this data going to be processed, analyzed, and stored? Largely, this information is housed in electronic health records (EHR) systems. Over the past few years, the bulk of healthcare institutions have implemented EHRs, with the goal of streamlining data collection and processing while also making medical care and treatment more effective and efficient. According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, close to nine in 10 physicians based in offices and just about every single large hospital in the country now use EHRs.

For EHRs, interconnectivity is crucial for a few key reasons:

  • Ingesting data
    For EHRs to be effective, they need to be able to take in and store data from a wide variety of sources.
  • Sharing data
    One of the key benefits of EHRs is that they enable multiple healthcare providers access to the same set of information for any patient. For example, a hospital can know what a patient has been seeing a doctor for during the past five years before they come in for a scheduled surgery, and the same doctors can easily call in and fill prescriptions. In a 2018 survey, close to three-fourths of those polled at large hospitals cited interoperability and data sharing as a major EHR initiative.
  • Minimizing downtime
    Unexpected downtime is costly and problematic in any industry, but especially healthcare. Patients may not be able to get the care they desperately need in a given moment if EHR data isn’t available or if critical sensors are not collecting information. At large hospitals, an hour of downtime can cost at least $1 million. To avoid both the human impact and monetary costs of such outages, interconnectivity is key; that way, should one line go down, the entire system doesn’t go down with it.

“Providers recognize the health and business benefits of delivering care virtually, yet a significant gap exists between their digital business goals and their ability to execute,” said Mark E. Gilbert, Senior Director, Analyst at Gartner.

Interconnectivity Behind the Scenes

Of course, interconnectivity is key not just in clinical settings within healthcare. Billing, insurance, human resources, and more are all increasingly being digitized, as paper records are gradually phased out. In order for these new digital processes to function properly and seamlessly, a robust, interconnected IT backbone is required.

However, there’s an added layer of complexity in healthcare IT networks due to various compliance regulations. At the national level, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) govern technology use and privacy, among other things - and running afoul of these regulations can lead to serious fines. State and local laws can further compound issues as well. For healthcare providers, this all means that interconnected networks need to prioritize security and data protection first and foremost.

How Healthcare Can Solve Interoperability Woes

In terms of digital transformation, healthcare organizations are often caught between two poles. On one hand, they need a highly scalable and elastic network capable of ingesting mass amounts of diverse data and allowing it to be shared among various different stakeholders. On the other hand, security, privacy, and strict data governance are even more paramount. Can both goals be accomplished in the same network?

For healthcare organizations, a hybrid approach is often the best path forward. Direct connections can be used where privacy and security are necessary, while the cloud can be deployed when collaboration and scalability are required. So long as everything is underpinned by true interconnectivity, healthcare organizations will be able to see quality results and achieve true digital transformation.

As Gartner has advised, “The new digital reality means protecting patient data and ensuring its proper flow to improve and ensure the best possible patient outcome. You need a new information architecture to accommodate the volume and types of data being produced. Without it, healthcare delivery organizations (HDOs) face great risk.”