By Christian Gilby
Healthcare organizations have had one of the most difficult years imaginable, both in how they do their jobs and in how they manage their supporting infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented way to begin a new decade and caught healthcare systems around the world off guard. While some businesses and industries were equipped to begin the transition to remote work, almost immediately the pandemic stressed healthcare IT systems and care delivery models, as well as posed complicated resourcing challenges. Now, with a year’s worth of lessons under our belt we can reflect on lessons learned, specifically how to future proof health systems’ networks.
When thinking through health systems’ biggest lessons learned during the pandemic, two key takeaways rise to the top. First, having a secure and automated wireless network infrastructure greatly impacts a health system’s ability to deliver care exactly when and where it’s needed most. And second, artificial intelligence (AI) and edge computing are no longer fringe technologies reserved for futuristic use cases – they are now cornerstone to supporting everyday services, including telehealth and remote patient monitoring. While many health systems found themselves to be ill-equipped to respond to shifting patient needs and government guidelines, others were able to quickly adapt their networks to deploy new technologies and serve their communities through innovative care methods.
Right away, the COVID-19 pandemic proved how important it is for care providers to be able to deploy a predictable, reliable and measurable network – anywhere that care is needed. When the pandemic began, seemingly overnight, parking lots, convention centers and public parks became new medical facilities and testing centers. While built to be short-term, these makeshift healthcare locations had to be equipped with the modern connectivity and medical tools found in a traditional facility. Cloud-managed networking solutions were key to quickly establishing temporary, but secure, networks to support testing and patient care in non-traditional venues.
Notably, Sacopee Valley Health, a non-profit hospital in Porter, Maine, worked quickly to restructure its network and deploy a testing center in its parking lot. Using secure, wireless technology it was able to set up temporary COVID-19 testing tents and extend reliable and protected Wi-Fi across the entire parking lot. In another example, clinical staff at the Orlando Veterans Health Medical Center provided virtual triage and nursing for veterans at home. To prepare staff, the VHA Innovation Ecosystem created a mobile ICU tent training exercise to ensure they could serve their more than 100,000 veterans in Central Florida under any circumstance. Looking ahead, as networking infrastructure continues to shift to cloud-managed solutions, setting up temporary networks and facilities such as these will become a quick-turn process for any health system in the future.
Additionally, during the height of the pandemic AI and edge computing capabilities were highly sought after to support next-gen technologies that require real-time decision making, such as connected health monitoring applications. Prior to COVID-19, telehealth services were typically used to reach rural communities, but they quickly became commonplace as patients sheltered in place for months on end. Nearly every hospital scaled up their telehealth and remote patient monitoring capabilities with virtual primary care, therapy services and behavioral health. The Orlando VA even used telemedicine robots as virtual stand-ins for clinicians, enabling doctors and nurses to care for patients while minimizing repeated exposure to the virus. Over time, this heavy reliance on virtual care may subside, but never again will it be viewed as a niche offering. Looking ahead, every healthcare provider must ensure they have invested in AI-driven networking technology to support virtual care into the future.
As the world has learned to navigate COVID-19 and experienced ebbs and flows in case rates, we are now seeing shifts back toward traditional healthcare. However, what will remain constant is the expectation for healthcare providers to move quickly to meet their community’s needs – whether for testing, virtual or critical care. To future-proof their networks, providers must heed the lessons learned during the pandemic and prioritize next-generation infrastructure for fast and secure connectivity. This will ensure they can put patients and the safety of their staff first – whether that’s pertaining to COVID-19 or any other unexpected emergency.
Christian Gilby is Sr. director of product marketing, AI-Driven Enterprise at Mist Systems, a Juniper Networks company.