Healthcare: Getting More With Less

I was watching a cable business network recently, actually all of them, and the subject de jour was the impact of the new healthcare legislation on the industry in the face of tightening resources. As usual, the discussion turned to huge potential cost savings and efficiencies from software that reinvents medical record-keeping, charting, file sharing, etc.—decreasing medical errors and unnecessary procedures.  For over a decade, this has been the obvious low hanging fruit and the mantra of so many software companies. But, there is a bigger picture technology need (and opportunity) in this changing market. Medical records solutions (facility-based currently) are just a small subset of the possible converged video/voice/data applications and their enabling network solutions necessary to support the virtual hospital concept, and deliver more productivity from a declining healthcare provider base.

As usual, the greatest rewards will go to those involved early in reworking this industry. Unfortunately for technology companies, the healthcare industry has been a steady, though not spectacular, market segment, and more problematic, a painfully slow adopter of new “big” converged applications and network services. That was then, the market potential now appears to be changing in favor of big technology initiatives and will be increasingly driven by recent Federal healthcare legislation.

Despite all the hype about apps, they still need to be enabled by an advanced network, creating a wide open opportunity from a rapidly changing healthcare delivery paradigm.  As such, providers should focus next generation networking solutions and partnerships on facilitating this industry migration from a widespread “cottage” healthcare industry to an industrial model comprising large focused medical service “factories,” a concept first stated by W. Skinner. Delivery consolidation, and its inherent improved productivity, could be a “mother lode” for providers well into the foreseeable future.

The current delivery system is widely redundant and underutilizes assets such as medical testing equipment, hospital infrastructure, administration staff, etc. The system also concentrates specialists in large metro areas while leaving rural areas with little or no coverage. However, coming to a clinic near you soon is a new delivery system that concentrates critical and scarce resources such as physicians, particularly specialists, in large focused medical “factories,” providing shared, specialized care for remote clinics/patients via converged video applications—more effectively using remote onsite physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners and general practice physicians. Making the ends meet in this new healthcare world will depend on next generation networks enabling these converged applications, connecting a “virtual” healthcare community. The healthcare industry is poised to become the networkers’ next great bandwidth “hog.”

To this point, various converged apps, medical records apps and meshed networks are widely available across the U.S. now—though not necessarily integrated for this market. Ethernet LAN, VPLS, IPVPN/MPLS networking solutions provide scalability, extremely high, reliable bandwidth delivery with high SLAs and COS, and not least, excellent security necessary to deploy virtually any imagined healthcare application. Network reliability, particularly if wireless connectivity is used, will be a success key—nothing could be worse than losing a connection in the middle of a consultation, examination or procedure. Equally important is a complete solution strategy. Turnkey, managed solutions will be critical to offset the lack of in-house technical expertise in most healthcare organizations, which are largely on a par with smaller businesses and not likely to change anytime soon. Finally, network providers expecting to be a player in healthcare going forward should be planning a proactive leadership role in helping this industry reinvent itself to meet a wide range of service demands.