Comment: Care and connectivity: delivering a connected health service

Eddie Ginja, head of public sector at broadband internet provider, KCOM, reveals how digital services are changing the way the NHS works - and the reality of trying to alter working practises

Eddie Ginja

It is easy to forget how lucky we are to live during the early 21st Century.

Thanks to treatments developed over the last 100 years, childhood mortality has been slashed, while older people are living longer thanks to more-sophisticated treatments for a range of ailments, from cancer to heart disease.

Nowadays, people born in the UK can expect to live into their mid 80s.

Such success comes at a price, however.

Longer lifespans and increasing healthcare expectations are placing the NHS’s finite resources under great pressure.

And, if we fail to find a more-efficient, affordable way to service the country’s ageing population, that strain will only build and continue to impact the quality of care patients receive.

One of the key steps taken by the UK Government to address these healthcare challenges is the move to a ‘Cloud First’ policy of new technology procurement.

The aspiration to create a truly-digital NHS is becoming a reality, as the health service reaches its deadline to become paperless by the end of the year.

A connected health service

We stand on the cusp of a revolution in healthcare; one that will enable organisations to share a wealth of data and best practices that will lead to improved outcomes for every patient

The cloud has been transformational in the world of business and there is no doubt that it can deliver smarter, more-agile and more-efficient services for patients – all at a much-more-affordable cost compared to legacy systems.

This has been enabled by the growth of major cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure, which provide the enhanced scale and improved security so essential to such large-scale projects.

Naturally, these services demand high-performance, resilient and secure connectivity to link hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies to cloud services.

Introduced during 2006 and 2007, The NHS’s old N3 network is no longer fit for the range of data-intensive, cloud-delivered services on which tomorrow’s healthcare services will rely. This is why the Government has developed the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), a standards-based ‘network of networks’ that will, by March 2019, connect healthcare providers and premises across the country.

The rollout of HSCN is the final, crucial piece in the jigsaw of healthcare IT. It enables trusts to access new digital healthcare services – including electronic patient records and NHS Digital’s online tools – and collaborate effectively with other organisations in their region. It also ensures safe, reliable and efficient information sharing between them.

HSCN will bring untold benefits to health and social care providers and those who rely on them. These range from improving the way organisations share critical data that improves our understanding and treatment of medical conditions, to enabling high-quality video for remote consultations, to accessing new healthcare applications and services that will directly benefit patients.

Getting ready for HSCN

However, such a wide-ranging migration project presents a major logistical challenge for organisations that need to upgrade their old N3 connections to HSCN via their existing infrastructures.

The cloud has been transformational in the world of business and there is no doubt that it can deliver smarter, more-agile and more-efficient services for patients

Fortunately, the advent of the new national network is also an ideal opportunity for organisations to review their entire network strategy, and to strengthen their links with other partner organisations.

Whether they decide to undertake a full-scale review will depend on several factors, including whether the organisation has a single site that they want to connect to HSCN, or whether they will need to link multiple premises via a triangulated connection, or through a hub and spoke model.

Whichever way they choose to proceed, it is vital that every organisation has a clearly-mapped and phased strategy for migration to the new national network.

Organisations should first ensure they underpin HSCN with robust and reliable networks of their own.

Local and wide area networks (WAN) should be tested and, where necessary, upgraded to ensure each site has the bandwidth, mobile failover and pro-active network monitoring to ensure full peace of mind for network managers, medical professionals and patients themselves. This should include Wi-Fi provision, enabling different users to access their network in different ways, creating an ‘always-connected’ environment.

Next, organisations should look at hosted voice platforms that provide clarity, flexibility and long-term cost savings; ensure they have direct, uncontended and secure access to hosted platforms; and enable reliable data and application services that enable employees to work smart wherever they are.

The final phase should focus on optimising network performance. Software-defined WAN, for example, delivers the best-possible levels of control, resilience and security, all configured via the cloud.

Organisations should also work towards providing HSCN connectivity to the public cloud, enabling each site and employee to securely access public cloud providers such as AWS or Microsoft Azure, and thus taking advantage of the associated cost savings and access to a range of critical care data and applications.

If we fail to find a more-efficient, affordable way to service the country’s ageing population, that strain will only build and continue to impact the quality of care patients receive

And organisations should consider the mobility services they provide so their workforce can access these systems wherever they are.

There are several ways for health and social care organisations to procure the technology and consultancy they need to deliver HSCN-ready networks. Those that wish to run their own procurement can go down the self-service route, for example.

Organisations that need to share information or otherwise collaborate with partners will benefit from taking a collaborative or aggregated approach.

This has the advantage of pooling limited resources to achieve much-greater economies of scale compared to acting alone.

We stand on the cusp of a revolution in healthcare; one that will enable organisations to share a wealth of data and best practices that will lead to improved outcomes for every patient.

These advances ultimately depend on having robust, reliable and high-performance networks – the invisible threads that will lead us to a healthier future.