Health IT Spotlight: Mounting Impact on Patient Care from Network Outages

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While touring of one of our customer's hospitals recently, I noticed how much patient care can be impacted during unplanned network outages. Everything – even the refrigerators – is connected to the network. It used to be that the temperatures in the refrigerators were recorded by nursing staff, but now there is a monitoring device inside that refrigerator that reports the temperature. If you had to do that manually due to a network outage, the resources are not insignificant and would take away from time nurses spend with patients. This is just one of many illustrations of the increasing dependence by healthcare organizations on the network to be available and have applications accessible 24/7.

Even if your EHR is in the hospital data center vs. a cloud deployment, there are many other geographically dispersed locations such as other hospitals and practice locations that rely on the network to connect to it. As EHR deployments become more widespread, the cost of unplanned downtime grows rapidly—up an estimated 30% in the past 7 years to more than $634 per physician per hour, according to a study by the AC Group.

Healthcare's what ifs

The number of those familiar with hard copy records will only continue to decline as more recent nursing grads take over more and more positions.

Given the dependence on the network will only continue to increase, It may be a good time to think about a few "what ifs:"

  • What alternate processes do nurses and doctors use in the event the EHR application is not accessible?
  • How are drugs and blood administered without network access?
  • Are there workarounds in place without the ability to lookup a patient to get blood out of the blood bank or drugs out of the drug carts or computerized cabinets?
  • How do orders that are normally sent electronically to radiology, pharmacy, and labs (to name a few) get delivered?

Identifying patients is already a challenge with everything in working order, but without network access, how do you validate a person is who they say they are? That exposes not just the health system but also patient to risk from fraud. The health system is at risk depending on the size or scope of the network outage because HIPAA Security rules require a business continuity plan to be in place to limit business disruption and to make sure protected information can still be accessed. Any HIPAA related fine would add to the financial risk to a healthcare organization for unplanned downtime.

Network availability = improved patient care and reduced risk

Patients are impacted if all of these things have not been fully thought out in your organization’s business continuity plan. There are a wide variety of ways to ensure and/or guarantee network and application availability and uptime. These range from sophisticated diversity solutions providing multiple coordinated connectivity options, to hybrid networks incorporating backup circuits. Or they may necessitate an updated network solution that incorporates automated failover to an active redundant circuits such as SD-WAN.

The important thing is to have a plan in place – a network provider with specific experience in this space can help you make great strides – and be sure everyone in the organization is well trained in implementing alternate processes.