HIMSS: IT pros share network struggles

New infrastructure study underscores challenges, priorities
By Erin McCann
09:35 AM

Health information technology leaders generally cite similar infrastructure priorities and challenges faced within the industry, but they disagree on approaches to addressing network scalability, executive support and cloud computing security, according to a new HIMSS Analytics study released Monday. 

IT leaders who participated in the study, conducted as a focus group at HIMSS13, underscored the top four interrelated IT infrastructure priorities as being: use of mobile devices; security; data storage and information exchange.
“We found that IT network priorities for all participating hospital systems were consistently focused around accommodating greater mobile and wireless connectivity to their networks,” said Jennifer Horowitz, senior director of research for HIMSS Analytics, in a press statement. “Simultaneously, the IT leaders were also concerned with ensuring the security of patient data, particularly as they relate to the challenges associated with bring your own device environments.”
The study’s key findings include:
  • Current hospital IT network environments are both wired and wireless. IT leaders reported using diverse methods to establish their networks, from Wi-Fi to DSL lines, but that the number of wireless versus wired devices was growing exponentially. 
  • Reliable IT networks are critical. Participants said that it was imperative to design a network with zero downtime due to the amount of data housed electronically. Disaster preparation is critical as well, with each participant reporting various strategies for data protection including tape back-ups and multiple data centers.
  • IT networks are sufficient for now, but healthcare organizations will need to prepare for a wireless paradigm shift. Overall, participants reported that they were content with current network environments but expressed concern over how their networks will adapt to accommodate the uptick in wireless technologies and devices.

[See also: Health IT leaders face hiring woes.]

“As the healthcare industry becomes increasingly focused on utilizing technology to improve patient care, health IT leaders are examining their network infrastructures to ensure they have a strong, reliable and scalable foundation,” said Karen Schmidt, vice president of enterprise marketing for Comcast — which supported the HIMSS Analytics study — in a press statement. “A key challenge will be keeping pace with the growing number of mobile devices entering the market while maintaining secure access and providing the performance to deliver vast amounts of healthcare data.”
Many industry leaders agree. John Halamka, MD, chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, for instance, has implemented one of the most comprehensive mobile security policies nationwide, configuring and encrypting each mobile device that connects to the hospital network.
Now this is partly due to Massachusetts state law, but it's also because Halamka sees data security as integral to providing quality patient care. "It's clear to me that healthcare organizations have no choice but to reduce personal choice and personal freedom in order to keep our patient data safe," he wrote in a July blog post explaining the reasoning behind implementing BIDMC's new mHealth policies. 
Despite overall satisfaction with current IT networks, study findings suggest that challenges still very much exist. IT leaders cited wireless drop zones, regulating Web access to limit personal Internet use and the limited network solutions options offered by vendors. 
However, for Ralph Johnson, chief information officer of 65-bed Franklin Community Health Network in rural Maine, drop zones aren’t top of mind.  “A bigger issue for me is lack of broadband availability in the community,” he said in an interview with Healthcare IT News. He cited the area’s poor saturation of 3G, 4G and even landline-based broadband. “I still have three doctors on dial-up” because broadband just isn’t available, he explained.  
When asked about the future of healthcare network environments as network demands continue to grow, three areas of concern were identified, all with a diverse set of responses and experiences: 
Scalability of solutions. Healthcare organizations relying on older technology, such as DSL lines, were more concerned about their organization’s ability to scale in the future than were those using more cutting edge solutions.
Executive support for the necessary investments of an expanding network. Several participants noted they had to educate their executive team about the nature of networks and that additional staffing needs would arise with the expansion of networks.
Viability of cloud computing and ensuring the ability to secure data. Participants approached cloud computing with caution and some noted that they would not trust storing personal health information in the cloud.
HIMSS is the parent company of Healthcare IT News.