The changing role of connectivity in healthcare

In May 2020, the NHS posted a notice for software to help scale up their remote monitoring capabilities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with a population under lockdown, senior officials are seeking ways to utilise health-tech and telehealth – supported by robust networks – to provide patient care. Even before the pandemic, Internet of Things (IoT) technologies played a significant role in the industry. Healthcare specialists could monitor their patients through connected sensors, make assessments via video calls, and even perform surgery on a patient thousands of miles away using virtual reality.

A flexible network is needed to link devices between doctors and patients, and given the variety of legacy systems and services, full interoperability is critical. The ability to handle huge volumes of data in the instances of video and streaming demands reliability along with near-zero latency. It goes without saying that security is key due to the intrinsic sensitive nature of patient data. Exposure to cyber threats could have catastrophic results for both patients and the organisation, leading IT leaders to consider using private cellular networks in addition to Wi-Fi, in order to create the most secure solution possible.

Life-saving connections

Inside a facility, a network of sensors can be used in a number of ways to improve processes and support medical staff. For example, the status of every patient could be monitored using IoT devices programmed to send alerts if an abnormal reading is recorded. This is particularly important in large hospitals where staff have more patients to monitor than ever, given quarantine situations, and where remote monitoring is essential to minimising contact with the disease.

Behind the scenes, administrative processes could be automated and streamlined to further support hospital staff. For example, by automatically registering the number of available beds in each department or sending test results directly to medical professionals.

Connectivity also allows patient care to begin before they even enter the facility. Ambulance units equipped with IoT devices remotely connect doctors and first responders, enabling early diagnoses and implementation of treatment plans through in-transit situations. This type of intervention could improve the prognosis for patients in emergency situations.

Telehealth solutions can also support medical staff by allowing them to regularly contact patients living in rural areas or with limited mobility. Video conference technology could be used to perform consultations, prescribe drugs, and treat patients, for example, by guiding them in physiotherapy exercises. This model allows healthcare staff to provide care in a way that suits a variety of lifestyles, thereby deepening relationships with patients.

The biggest challenge: security

To get the best out of healthcare IoT, a secure and reliable network is crucial – patient data is intrinsically some of the most sensitive. Private networks create a space separate from the public internet, drastically reducing the risk of successful cyberattacks. Each IoT device is connected to the network via a SIM card, enabling secure authentication and user access control.

As with any emerging technology, there are areas to consider when implementing private networks. In the case of telehealth, it’s also worth noting that discrepancies in the connectivity solutions between the medical facility and the patient’s home can potentially introduce vulnerabilities. Devices in the hospital may run on a private network, but that’s not the case for the patients, who will likely use the public internet. This can potentially create a way in for malicious users and underscores the importance of prioritising security at the edge of the hospital’s network.

As the pandemic has proved, there is no “out of the box” solution for healthcare, especially in the instance of urgent scale up to deal with a crisis. In order to build a network appropriate for the facility, each hospital needs to work with a specialist technology partner to determine what functions the connection needs to support, and how to rapidly put it together. The architecture of the solution also has to be easy for the IT department of the hospital to maintain and manage in the long term – demonstrating that urgency can be seen as a catalyst for innovation.

Connecting the present to the future

Changing patient demands and expectations mean that improvements in healthcare become more linked to technological innovation. Healthcare providers will continue to look for the best solutions to support initiatives and provide gold standard care. As technologies such as the IoT and 5G become more widely available, more use cases will emerge which rely on exceptional connectivity for success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the crucial role that IoT networks bring: from using robots to care for quarantined patient to performing remote monitoring and diagnosis. In the future, these types of applications will become more commonplace, as the industry strives to provide and maintain a high standard of patient care using new technologies. Private networks offer the security and flexibility needed to support new applications, ultimately enabling the healthcare industry to continue to innovate and provide superior care.

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