Innovative technologies are changing the nature of healthcare. Thanks to cutting-edge developments we are now on the cusp of remote surgery, have robots assisting in operating theatres and can access certified medical information via a voice assistant.

But the influx of these technologies puts significant strain on the network. As more and more enterprises move to become smart hospitals, having myriad Internet of Things (IoT) devices in multiple locations share a single network is no longer a workable option.

Slow loading speeds or unsecured networks can undermine these processes and create unnecessary downtime. And, with data-poisoning and cyberattacks on the rise and the number of vulnerable access points growing rapidly, it is more important than ever that healthcare companies have a secure and stable network that practitioners can rely on to keep patients safe.

Smart but not secure

Cybersecurity has become a key talking point for hospitals, particularly in the wake of notorious malware attacks such as WannaCry in 2017. This is understandable, given the amount of sensitive data stored on hospital servers and the variety of life-saving devices that can be compromised in a security breach.

As more hospitals are transformed into smart, connected enterprises, it would be a serious mistake for decision makers to assume that a smart technology is secure. According to the Open Source Cybersecurity Intelligence Network and Resource, there is an average of 6.2 vulnerabilities per medical device. Additionally, many older devices still run operating systems such as Windows 95, or lack anti-virus or firewall capabilities. That’s a lot of vulnerabilities that hackers can, and will, exploit if given the opportunity.

Upgrading or replacing all of these devices would be highly impractical, not to mention costly, so hospitals have to find other ways to secure their network and connected technology. Smart networks can be a valuable weapon in the arsenal of IT staff when it comes to tackling cyber threats. IoT devices need to be visible to network administrators so that they can be easily monitored and controlled.

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By GlobalData

According to network equipment firm Extreme Networks, 12% of hospitals do not isolate or segment device traffic from the rest of the network traffic. The company has been working with healthcare facilities around the world as they upgrade their systems, providing solutions that transform outdated networks into functional tools. One such solution is Extreme’s Automated Campus, which allows administrators to segment and hide devices and traffic.

“In healthcare, security is a huge issue,” explained Ed Meyercord CEO of Extreme Networks. “Say, there’s a pump, and it’s supposed to be sending data to an application that’s running on our platform but it’s trying to surf the internet.

“You can segment a network and you can effectively create a path or network for your epic installation. So literally, nothing can touch that. It’s effectively a tunnel.”

Mobile-friendly thinking

Another growing issue for healthcare facilities is connectivity. This is particularly evident with the rise of electronic health records (EHRs), as delays can create real problems in time-sensitive environments.

A key example of how a network can help facilitate digital transition can be found in Sydney Adventist Hospital (SAN). Over the past two decades, this acute-care private hospital has undergone a dramatic digital transformation and is now a far cry from the original operation that opened its doors in 1903.

As part of this redevelopment, the hospital received a significant infrastructure upgrade, stripping out the old backbone cabling, core and wireless network to make way for a new system, one that could accommodate the growing demands of a tech-focused hospital.

With the network foundation in place, Adventist has set about rolling out a ‘mobile-first’ strategy, with the launch of its own SanCare smartphone app. This app is a significant tool for practitioners as it allows them to quickly and securely access a patient’s electronic health records.

“In Australia, the doctors do not work for the hospital, so for doctors who are often not on site because they work at multiple locations, having a fully functional safely consumable EHR has fundamentally changed the way that we can provide care,” explained SAN services operations and infrastructure manager Barbara Mackenzie at the Extreme Networks’ customer conference earlier this year.

With 550 licensed overnight beds and a myriad of connected devices to monitor and maintain, adopting a reliable network was crucial for the success of SAN’s digital upgrade. The hospital opted to move away from VLANs in favour of Extreme Networks Fabric Connect service. With the new fabric, the SAN’s network administrator could manage the network from a single location, reducing the need to physically program every point of the network.

Moving forward with smart networks

If the purpose of improving network capabilities is to make it easier for network administrators to perform their jobs, it stands to reason that the human component should remain central to the design and implementation of smart systems.

However, functionality and ease-of-use are often overlooked in the pursuit of more advanced systems. The goal should be to develop a network where technology aids staff members, rather than hinders them. What good is an EHR if a nurse spends more time trying to input data than they would when using a pen and paper? This is an important detail that hospitals need to focus on when establishing a smart network.

Enhanced visibility and segmentation capabilities appear to be a step in the right direction. Giving IT staff these tools can help them to predict issues and prevent downtime, similar to autonomous systems in a number of other industries. Moreover, hyper-segmentation can help hospitals to react to potential cyber issues, cutting off the diseased limb before it can impact any other part of the system.

Hospitals can also use this function to separate medical devices from other network traffic to reduce the threat of hacking.

As Meyercord explains: “You can’t hack what you can’t see”

Read more: Newcastle hospitals utilise 3D printing in patient care with in-house facilities