Medical facilities today depend on internet of medical things technology to deliver best-in-class patient care, from connected infusion pumps to patient telemetry monitors. In fact, Frost & Sullivan estimated there will be up to 30 billion connected IoT and medical devices in the health sector by 2020.
Unlike other industries where IoT is equally prevalent, network administrators in healthcare face unique challenges when implementing this technology. There are strict privacy regulations to contend with, connectivity barriers due to irregular physical environments, and the increasing threat of security breaches, to name a few. Not to mention, the technology being deployed is involved in life-critical situations.
IT teams shoulder the weight of guaranteeing that IoMT devices are safe, always-on and reliable 24/7 year-round. However, these teams are also stretched thin, managing and securing hundreds, if not thousands, of devices with fewer resources than ever before. Here’s a closer look at the top three challenges healthcare IT professionals face in their efforts, and how to address them.
Challenge 1: Fortifying and preserving patient safety
According to the 2019 HIMSS Cybersecurity Survey, 82% of healthcare organizations experienced significant security incidents in 2018. Why? Beyond the sheer volume and sprawl of IoMT devices connecting to the network — an average of 15-20 medical devices per bed — hospitals are particularly vulnerable due to their use of legacy technology. For example, most MRI machines are used in a hospital for at least 11 years, and some machines operate for more than 22 years before they are replaced, according to GE. Furthermore, KLAS recently reported that a third of connected medical devices are unpatchable, meaning they cannot be updated to protect against new vulnerabilities because they are no longer supported by their manufacturer. These devices — MRI, anesthesia and X-ray machines, among others — were not built with embedded security features suitable for modern-day hospitals and were not created to network outside a single hospital. As a result, they are at greater risk for breaches.
While a security breach is serious in any industry, an attack on a hospital has the potential to impact equipment supporting human lives. For example, the FDA recently issued recalls for pacemakers and insulin pumps with known security issues. Compromises to these critical devices could lead to serious injuries, if not fatalities.
Health IT teams are on the front lines, charged with preventing any scenario that could jeopardize patient safety. With limited resources, IT leads should reevaluate their security strategies and look for new ways to streamline how they monitor, identify and respond to potential security threats. For instance, instead of spending countless hours monitoring thousands of individual devices across multiple locations, consider deploying behavioral monitoring technology to track groups of similar devices that should exhibit similar behaviors. By grouping and collectively monitoring imaging systems with other imaging systems, for example, and IV pumps with other IV pumps across the network, IT teams can holistically monitor group behaviors, identify anomalies more efficiently and mitigate a threat before it’s too late.
Challenge 2: Maintaining connectivity when it matters most
When the stakes are as high as they are in the healthcare sector, clinicians, patients and staff should be able to count on 100% connectivity, 100% of the time. However, a recent study from HIT Infrastructure evaluated medical device connectivity and found that an alarming 45% of connections initially fail. These connections can fail for a number of reasons — limited network capacity, understaffed IT teams or physical barriers interrupting a wireless signal. In the context of a healthcare institution, those odds are unacceptable. So, how can IT leads reduce latency in a medical environment and still guarantee connectivity when it matters the most?
Continuous connectivity begins with a reliable network infrastructure. IT teams need an agile, adaptive and secure network to be able to support the myriad of systems, tools and devices that depend on it to function. The network must allow IT to enforce policy rules and prioritization to support device connectivity, ensuring life-saving equipment takes precedent over non-mission-critical equipment, such as in-room entertainment. Automating these policy rules across the network infrastructure will allow IT teams to identify and mitigate connectivity issues more efficiently and effectively so they can focus on higher-level strategic tasks related to improving patient safety and care.
Challenge 3: Reducing human error
Though hospital environments are more complicated and technology-dependent than ever before, healthcare IT budgets and workforces aren’t growing at the same rate and, in some cases, they’re actually shrinking. According to the 30th annual U.S. Leadership and Workforce Survey from HIMSS, only 28% of hospitals claimed their health IT workforce is fully staffed. In the same study, only 37% of respondents anticipated their IT workforce to increase in 2019. Therefore, IT leads are challenged to rethink how to simplify processes and systems while improving overall performance and safety. Many are looking to network automation.
Consider how automation drastically improved infusion pump technology. Previously, drug catalogs were uploaded to infusion pumps from a local server. If a medical staff member entered a dosage outside of the catalog’s spectrum, it would trigger an alert. Today, next-generation infusion pumps are connected to patient electronic medical records. Not only does this save time and resources, but the automation and smart orientation of technology significantly decrease the margin of human error.
With network automation, healthcare IT can standardize and streamline staff processes, increase the quality and quantity of patient insights, and enhance patient engagement and satisfaction for better healthcare outcomes. Ultimately, automation can help healthcare organizations spend less time on administrative tasks and more time caring for patients.
Quality medical care depends on both technology and human intelligence working together as efficiently and seamlessly as possible. Whether it’s securing devices and protecting patient safety, improving connectivity or optimizing resources, health IT teams are responsible for making this vision a reality and cultivating amazing patient experiences in the hospitals of tomorrow.
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