By Michael Wood, Versa Networks

While most industries strive for profits and growth rates, the healthcare industry’s success is defined by how it serves the public and sustains their well-being and safety. Also, healthcare is one of the more highly regulated industries, so technology has always been a critical business enabler for healthcare providers to meet security and compliance standards. 

The wide-scale digitalization of distributed networks in recent years has resulted in a negative effect on the performance and security of traditional wide area networks, or WANs. The traditional static WAN infrastructure cannot meet the demands of today’s dynamic, shifting workloads and resources; or defend against today’s advanced cybersecurity threats. Most IT teams continue to struggle with challenges such as inconsistent application performance, decreased efficiency, loss of productivity, and the disruption of critical services. These can lead to serious negative impacts to a healthcare provider’s reputation and client satisfaction. Conventional WANs have evolved over the years as a convolution of standalone solutions resulting in an extremely complex network environment. As more devices and applications are introduced, healthcare IT teams have to work overtime to use more single-point solutions to attempt to secure and manage interconnected devices.

Healthcare is among the few industries where Internet-connected devices were already in use before ‘Internet of Things” (IoT) took hold. Internet-connected medical devices, referred to as EMDs or electronic medical devices, have been the glue keeping the health system together – playing critical roles in such important areas as patient care, medical records, imaging, and billing. The challenge has been in securing these interconnected devices over the WAN across geographically distributed locations. Each of these devices serves as a potential attack vector for cybercriminals, and the sheer number of devices at various locations makes securing them extremely challenging for even the most experienced healthcare IT teams.

Cloud solutions have evolved and promise better service levels as compared to internal IT organizations – at a fraction of the cost and complexity. Healthcare providers typically have smaller IT teams or limited access to skilled IT resources in satellite locations. Cloud-based Hospital Management Solutions (HMS) and collaboration and productivity applications provide a flexible, cost-effective, and agile model for connecting remote locations. As a result, many healthcare providers have migrated to the cloud to achieve access to better IT services, without having to maintain an internal team of technical resources.

Unfortunately, traditional WANs were never built to handle today’s cloud-intensive workloads. They also take a long time to deploy or modify, making them less than ideal for a today’s dynamic cloud-driven healthcare industry, where time is of critical importance. To maintain security, traditional network traffic has had to traverse back and forth between branch offices and corporate data centers, using SaaS, PaaS or IaaS solutions. This complexity adds latency and packet loss, slowing applications and making them unreliable, while increasing the overall volume of traffic and bandwidth consumption. In addition, traditional WANs are expensive to maintain and are very static in terms of network traffic. 

Now, healthcare providers across the globe are using a combination of disruptive technologies such as cloud, IoT and Internet-connected medical devices to create an IT infrastructure that meets the needs for flexible and round-the-clock healthcare services, while keeping costs low. However, the move to a more digitalized, automated approach reveals bottlenecks created by traditional WAN and networking technologies. 

For an extremely regulated industry where any breach can lead to compliance issues, security has emerged as one of the biggest points of concern. A compromised medical device within the network can rapidly infect other devices, rendering them inoperable and unsafe to use. This heightens the chance for critical records being stolen or made inaccessible, and even shutting down facilities as a precaution. The reputational cost of a breach affecting client health and privacy can eclipse the lost revenue from business disruption.

Modern networks that power the underlying infrastructure for digital, cloud-first organizations need to be intelligent and built to deliver uninterrupted, secure connectivity to cloud applications. Superior application performance, reducing deployment times, and minimizing the cost and complexity of running the networks are some of the features that healthcare providers should aim to incorporate when building a future-ready WAN.

Whether the healthcare provider decides to expand to new geographical locations by opening new branch offices, or through acquisitions/mergers, IT’s role is critical in quickly bringing new locations on board. SD-WAN’s centralized administration and console make it easy to turn up new services and new locations, while adjusting policies remotely for immediate results, without having to worry about the cost, resources, and logistics associated with setting up a new IT infrastructure at a new location.

A new approach to integrating security and networking in one solution called secure access service edge (SASE) allows healthcare IT teams to proactively set up application transport policies and network routes to cope with traffic spikes, instead of having to upgrade circuits and bandwidth. By leveraging low-cost broadband and making it more secure and enterprise-ready, SD-WAN, a capability of SASE, helps healthcare providers prepare for the possibility of natural disaster/pandemic events, or emergencies that can lead to increased demand for healthcare services.

Healthcare is arguably one of the world’s most IT intensive sectors, and the opportunities to leverage cutting-edge technology to improve service quality, encourage affordability and enhance the patient experience is wide open. The impact of network downtime or service disruption can result in significant financial or business losses – and particularly for the healthcare industry, it could actually jeopardize patient wellbeing and safety. With so much at stake, the healthcare industry has very little tolerance for failure.

SASE and SD-WAN enable healthcare IT leaders to create a more robust, reliable, and trusted network infrastructure to operate efficiently and safely, and to service both patients and medical staff well. By creating the perfect balance between security, manageability, network operational efficiency, and performance, IT leaders can help their organizations create and deliver affordable, world-class healthcare services to patients. 

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