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Why the network is key to healthcare’s post-pandemic future

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With the necessity to adopt digital technologies within healthcare becoming more widely realised during the past year, Matt Roberts, healthcare practice lead at Juniper Networks, discusses the fundamental role of digitalisation going forward

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the greatest strain on humanity since WWII, and just like WWII there is a need for a global re-building effort and radical, technology-enabled changes in the way people live and work.

For the healthcare sector in particular, the pandemic has been a watershed moment, driving home the necessity of digital transformation in a way that only a crisis can. During the past year there has been not only a surge in demand for care, but a surge in demand for connected technologies – like telehealth visits and smart medical devices – that allow people to safely obtain care from outside the four walls of the health system.

Such technologies have existed for some time, but the pandemic has shown that these digital advances aren’t just “nice to have,” but rather indispensable elements of a modern public health ecosystem.

The healthcare sector will not return to the pre-pandemic status quo characterised by an incremental approach to digitisation.

The pandemic has provided a glimpse of what is possible when organisations tap into the power and potential of digital technologies, and now that consumers have had a taste of the conveniences of virtual care, they will expect the same access in the future. In fact, according to IDC Health Insights FutureScape 2021, digitally enabled remote care will drive 70 percent growth in spending on connected health technologies by providers and life science companies by 2023.

This reality requires healthcare organisations to take a holistic look at one of their most important strategic assets: their network. The explosion of IoT devices, telehealth/virtual care and remote health monitoring requires an agile network that can support application demand and deliver a great experience at the same time.

It can be helpful to think of the network like the vascular and immune systems of the human body. It plays a vital role in keeping an organisation healthy – transporting, actioning and protecting critical information 24/7/365. A healthy network allows organisations to scale and support new applications and technologies that can assist in driving better patient outcomes and experiences – like AI, which holds tremendous potential to help leaders make better, data-driven decisions at both the individual patient level as well as for entire populations.

However, too many health systems are currently locked into traditional IT architectures that are highly complex, restrict change and limit choice. Their reliance on legacy networks and a patchwork approach to digitisation leaves critical gaps in capabilities.

Legacy infrastructure can’t keep up with the ever-increasing demands on networks, limiting both clinical and business innovation as well as operational efficiencies. In order to respond effectively to the pandemic as well as future-proof their organisations, healthcare leaders must accelerate their IT infrastructure initiatives and modernise their networks.

Consider the stakes. There is a global effort to vaccinate everyone on earth. Fragmented networks can potentially jeopardize the vaccine rollout in areas lacking adequate technological and networking capabilities – areas that are typically more remote and underserved to begin with – resulting in security breaches, wasted product or people not receiving their vaccine in a timely manner. By contrast, implementation of smart WAN (Wide-Area Network) technology provides the support that is currently lacking and allows for better management and greater proactivity when pre-empting these issues.

Also consider the immense strain on resources that the pandemic has created for hospitals around the world. Health systems use various capacity planning methods to balance the availability of beds, staff and other resources with anticipated need. The unprecedented demand for healthcare resources has highlighted the necessity of advanced, analytics capacity planning. Tools such as virtual Bluetooth LE (vBLE), which uses analytics to improve resource allocation, helps hospitals efficiently manage capacity and respond in real time to surges in demand.

Finally, there is also the ever-present challenge of cybersecurity. Given the enormous influx of people seeking care, the amount of sensitive data being shared and the increase in network entry points created by connected devices, a secure network is more important than ever. And that means networks can no longer rely on perimeter security to protect data and applications. A threat-aware network utilises every element – routers, switches, etc., coupled with automation, machine learning and AI – to recognise, detect and mitigate malware and other unauthorised traffic across the entire infrastructure. A properly secured network helps ensure that health systems are compliant with data regulations, keeps patient information safe and builds trust.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which a modern, agile network helps organisations address the challenges of the pandemic era and prepare for what’s next. COVID-19 has been a stark reminder that digital transformation is a cornerstone of modern healthcare. It has exposed the need for more resilient systems of care, and in turn, more resilient networks.

At the height of one of the most extensive efforts of collective action in human history, service providers and networks will be central to the sector’s increased digital awareness and engagement. If organisations can meet the opportunity and rise to the moment, a brighter, healthier future is possible.

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