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Edge computing and mobile coverage essential to digitization in the NHS

The IoT has the potential to transform the way hospitals communicate and operate for both patient interaction and behind the scenes logistics. Reliable ICT networks are integral to the process.

The NHS is at a defining moment thanks to Covid-19. It’s neither sustainable nor feasible for this longstanding institution to deliver patient care the way it did pre-pandemic because public expectations and the socioeconomic landscape have changed beyond all recognition.

ICT costs have increased, communications infrastructures are at capacity, and there has been a surge in demand for specialist equipment and drug regimes, not to mention the co-ordination of a nationwide vaccination programme. The NHS is under pressure to deliver so much right now it needs to find innovative, new ways to handle logistics if it is to achieve the performance targets outlined in its digital transformation plan. Leveraging IoT and edge computing could be a plausible way forward.

Senior executive teams had been investigating viable options for overhauling routine processes long before the pandemic took hold. Indeed, when the NHS first published its long-term transformation planback in 2019, a programme which identified key areas for improvement over the next decade, it recognised that seamless mobile connectivity, ICT refreshes and IoT were integral to reducing waiting times, streamlining operations and delivering the highest standards of care, both in hospitals and the wider community.

Many of the technological aspects have been achieved well ahead of schedule as different stakeholders scrambled to digitize ‘in-person’ services in super-short timeframes to minimise close contact and to prevent facilities from reaching crisis point. These online consultations and other self-help services are likely to remain in place post pandemic for efficiency and resourcing purposes.

However, as these virtual services were being introduced, it quickly became apparent that there were major gaps in the underpinning ICT infrastructures instrumental to their smooth running, which posed clinical, security and operational risks. The security aspect has been heightened further due to the need for remote access to centralised servers to support homeworking. The NHS fell victim to cybercrime back in 2017 and there are concerns this could happen again if the appropriate systems and networks are not put in place.

Not only are many hospital buildings poorly equipped from an ICT standpoint, many routine processes are also still manual, which counteracts the objectives for digitization. Laborious tasks such as knowing the whereabouts of medical staff, tracking down ICU equipment, clinical records, etc. can be so easily automated. You need a reliable communications infrastructure that enables edge computing and supports mobile-first strategies. Not only are smartphones and tablets taking precedence over desktops for general admin and patient monitoring, pagers and other legacy devices are slowly being phased out because they don’t support data-driven services.

Even though IoT is the only feasible way forward in a digitized world, an unavoidable after-effect is the amount of data that will be generated as a result. The more digitization is embraced, the greater the need for robust ICT networks and seamless interconnectivity between different technologies and devices running on those networks for smooth and safe operations. A few seconds’ delay can be fatal in a clinical situation.

Large hospitals have historically housed their ICT and communications rooms across multiple buildings and sites. This isn’t an issue so long as these different facilities can reliably talk to each other. Indeed, if installed appropriately, they could provide the edge framework needed to enable the widescale deployment of IoT and automation.

Unfortunately, due to limited resources, outdated servers and reactive maintenance and support, these legacy communications facilities are blighted with synchronisation, and efficiency challenges, often resulting in system or network failures. The digitized services running on these networks are totally unworkable in many instances because of latency and performance issues. As healthcare establishments increasingly adopt IoT, their underpinning comms networks must provide the bandwidth needed to support these computing intensive technologies 24x7.

Ensuring seamless connectivity doesn’t have to be a ‘rip and replace’ process either. Dynamic network monitoring and automated health-checks will troubleshoot most glitches before they impact usability and can increasingly be managed remotely. It’s important to remember, though, that ICT issues are not always network-related, sometimes the problems are caused by the different devices running on the network. These issues can be harder to identify because specialist monitoring tools are needed.

A system capable of detecting both is Quantum Path. Developed from the ground up to meet the requirements of seamless connectivity, it’s a service assurance tool that dynamically monitors the local ICT and Wi-Fi networks, quality of service of the wider broadband/mobile networks, along with data and voice performance at network and device level 24x7, to ensure seamless connectivity within an edge computing framework.

Ambitions of truly embracing next generation technologies can be little more than a pipedream for many NHS Trusts on account of legacy ICT infrastructures and limited funds. Providing the networking conditions needed to support IoT is neither difficult nor expensive if you use the right tools and work with an experienced provider.

Author
Stuart Waine

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