Healthcare IT: How to manage a mammoth network

Joe Kim, chief technology officer at IT monitoring and management tools developer SolarWinds, looks at the scale of the problem faced by healthcare organisers handling ever-increasing amounts of data and offers five ways they can tackle it.

SolarWinds CTO Joe Kim – Photo credit: SolarWinds

IT plays a crucial role in every organisation. If the network goes down, a security breach occurs, or an application doesn’t run smoothly, there can be major financial consequences for the business.

However, for healthcare organisations the impact of something like this can go far beyond financial implications – it could significantly affect patient care.

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If the network goes down in a business, employees might not be able to access the network to do their job, but in a hospital it could stop an operation from going ahead or treatments being prescribed.  

The size of the challenge

The sheer scale of each network within an NHS trust immediately poses challenges to healthcare IT professionals.

Think about every time you have ever been to the doctors’ surgery. For some it will be more than others, but every single illness, appointment or travel injection will have been logged on a healthcare database and it will still be accessible today.

Now multiply this with the amount of patients in each trust and you have a vague understanding of the sheer amount of patient data stored on the network.

On top of this, there is a record of every operation, every treatment – whether it’s physio or psychiatry – every birth, every clinic, every scan and so on. Then, you have the day-to-day running of the organisation, which has huge finance and operational departments also relying on the same network.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the size of these networks will only continue to grow.

The network is the NHS’s lifeline and it’s the responsibility of the IT department to manage this mammoth network, keep the data secure and ensure it’s running smoothly.

This is no easy task.

Failure is not an option

It’s imperative that the network is always up and running and that doctors and nurses can access patient data 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Imagine if a doctor misdiagnosed a patient because they didn’t have access to their previous records, or prescribed something they were severely allergic to. On the flip side, what if the network went down and the systems failed so critical patient case applications were unavailable.

Not only would there be major consequences for the patients involved, it would cost the healthcare organisations time and money that they just can’t spare.

These critical medical and administrative applications rely on the network to function, and need to be available at any given time.

With consequences so detrimental to the day-to-day running of healthcare organisations, it’s vital that server health is a priority for the IT teams.

How do you keep the network running?

There are simple and efficient ways for healthcare IT professionals to do this which would save time and money in the long-term, without jeopardising patient healthcare.

First, have visibility.

One of the biggest challenges IT professionals face when managing a network as large as this is lacking visibility into the problem leading to network performance issues.

It’s important that they have this knowledge of server health because it can help pinpoint or predict where problems lie.

The best way to do this is to invest in network and systems management tools to monitor network performance.

This will provide network administrators with the visibility they need to troubleshoot network problems or outages, resolve configuration issues, as well as support end-users and systems from a central location.

Second, professionals need to secure staff devices.

Today’s patients, doctors, nurses and staff can connect their devices to a hospital’s Wi-Fi, posing a huge security risk to the network, with countless endpoints which need to be managed, monitored and controlled.

The IT team needs to spend a lot of time and money protecting their network from what connects to it through careful monitoring and treating every device or ‘thing’ as a potential threat in the first instance.

Third, the IT team needs full visibility and governance of all file transfer activity on the network.

Those managing the IT systems should always have access to real-time file transfer statistics and track File Transfer Protocol logs to have greater visibility into file transfer operations within healthcare organisations.

Reviewing these logs will ensure timely flags of compliance violations, provide insight into reasons for errors (when or why a file transfer failed), diagnose potential threats such as repeated attempts at a failed login and provide an audit trail for compliance. This will help keep the network secure.

Fourth, organisations must update their firewalls.

With a network as large as the NHS, firewalls can accumulate an ever-growing list of conflicting and redundant rules and objects, which can cause mayhem in firewall management.

Therefore, healthcare IT professionals need to be regularly running automated scripts or leverage a firewall management tool to help with the clean-up process by identifying conflicting rules, removing redundancies and generally streamlining the access control list structure.

And finally, IT professionals need to implement an automation tool.

Today, it’s quite clear why a monitoring solution is a good idea. But IT teams need to make sure that implementing solutions – rather than simply monitoring problems – is the priority, and that capabilities for automatic response are leveraged to their utmost.

With a healthcare IT professional having a million and one things to do, it’s far more efficient and effective to have a computer fix a problem when the computer sees it at 3 in the morning, rather than waking up a human to do the job.

Especially if you are that human.


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