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How early detection can mitigate common network problems

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Modern hospitals are powered by a sprawling, intricate web of wired and wireless network connections being run by dedicated teams of network engineers and IT workers. These networks, and the people who implement and maintain them, face mounting pressure to enable higher standards of patient care and security.

While advancements in technology and data storage have played a pivotal role in improving patient outcomes at hospitals, new medical devices and communication tools, plus more stringent healthcare regulations for enhanced patient confidentiality and data security, have created a perfect storm of complexity for healthcare IT professionals.

There are certain issues that are unique to hospital networks. Although this is not an exhaustive list, these are some of the key issues now being faced by hospital networks today.

  • Wireless technologies are commonplace in business and consumer environments, but it’s not so easy for healthcare organizations. Hospital buildings typically have thick walls, making it difficult to deploy Wi-Fi access points effectively. Adding to the complexity, there are a huge number of devices competing for bandwidth, all needing to switch to the next access point seamlessly as they are moved throughout the hospital.
  • Many hospitals today have multiple campuses and dozens of smaller clinics that need access to information, such as patient medical records, test results and other shared services. Network performance and even security at these remote or distributed offices pose unique challenges of their own, in terms of reliability and troubleshooting. While managing the network from a central location is possible, gaining adequate visibility into network health all the way to the edge of the network requires the deployment of specific equipment, which is often overlooked in the original network designs.
  • Hospital networks are more likely to connect to outdated equipment running old operating systems. The lifespan of a typical mobile phone these days is around two years—for a laptop, that may stretch to five or even six years. In the hospital setting, equipment commonly used in patient wards and examination rooms might easily be in service for 15 to 20 years, with few firmware or middleware upgrades being applied to them toward the end of their lifecycles. This means that hospital networks—more than almost any other environment—must cope with the demands of legacy equipment. In practical terms, it’s not uncommon to see medical equipment being used that was manufactured in 2003, when 802.11a and 802.11b Wi-Fi protocols were first becoming popular.
  • Older devices also present security issues, especially if they cannot easily be patched. Having products on the hospital floor without providing the software updates that many have come to expect from consumer electronic devices poses potential risks to patient safety and privacy. It’s not just the infamous case of hackers possibly gaining access to a pacemaker; connected health devices can be hijacked to form botnets or provide an easy entry point into a network for ransomware or other malware that targets patient data.
  • Networks often experience issues such as latency, jitter and dropped packets. When wireless communication is thrown into the mix, this can be exacerbated by interference. Hospitals have so many departments, using a variety of electronic appliances, that they often interfere with nearby wireless equipment. Security cameras are one particular culprit, but there are many more.

One of the best ways hospital IT staff can address these emerging challenges is to cut down on the troubleshooting time to resolve network issues before patient care is impacted. This is where good packet capture tools and diagnostic software is invaluable. By initiating a packet capture at the source of the problem, it is possible to quickly find the root cause of the issue, whether it happens to be caused by a misconfigured router, the ISP, an application problem or perhaps even a cloud service provider.

In the modern hospital environment, these tools provide the additional benefit of being able to go beyond short-term diagnostics. Having access to long-term network data and analytics will enable teams to accurately benchmark network and application performance throughout the hospital chain, helping them to much more easily identify where and when specific problems began.

This information enables IT teams to find anomalies and resolve performance issues with greater speed and efficiency. Just as preventative medicine is seen as an incredibly important and powerful way to reduce the risk of disease for patients, hospital networks, like those at any large organization, need to shift away from being reactive when it comes to network management.

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