Robust edge computing infrastructure & reliable mobile coverage are central to digitisation in the NHS

29-07-2021 | By Stuart Waine

The NHS is at a defining moment thanks to Covid-19. It is neither sustainable nor feasible for this longstanding institution to deliver patient care how 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 coordination of a nationwide vaccination programme. The NHS is under pressure to deliver so much right now that it needs to find innovative, new ways to handle logistics to achieve the performance targets outlined in its digital transformation plan. Leveraging IoT and edge computing could be a plausible way forward.

“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,” says Stuart Waine of Spry Fox networks

IoT & Digitisation of the NHS

Senior executive teams had been investigating viable options for overhauling routine processes long before the pandemic took hold. The NHS first published its long-term transformation plan back in 2019, a programme that identified critical 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 technical aspects have been achieved well ahead of schedule. Different stakeholders scrambled to digitise ‘in-person’ services in super-short timeframes to minimise close contact and prevent facilities from reaching crisis points. These online consultations and other self-help services are likely to remain in place post-pandemic for efficiency and resourcing purposes.

However, as virtual services got introduced, it quickly became apparent that there were significant 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 that this could happen again if the appropriate systems and networks are not appropriately protected.

Not only are many hospital buildings poorly equipped from an ICT standpoint, but many routine processes are also still manual, which counteracts the objectives for digitisation. Laborious tasks such as knowing the whereabouts of medical staff, tracking down ICU equipment, and clinical records can be so easily automated. Reliable communications infrastructure is needed 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 do not support data-driven services.

Even though IoT is the only feasible way forward in a digitised world, an inevitable after-effect is the amount of data generated as a result. As digitisation gets embraced, requirements will grow for robust ICT networks. Smooth and safe operations can occur with seamless interconnectivity between different technologies and devices running on those networks. A delay of a few seconds can be fatal in a clinical situation.

Ensuring seamless connectivity

Large hospitals have historically housed their ICT and communications rooms across multiple buildings and sites. Having multiple sites is not an issue as 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 a system or network failures. The digitised services running on these networks are 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 does not have to be a ‘rip and replace’ process either. Dynamic network monitoring and automated health checks will troubleshoot most glitches before they impact usability, which is increasingly performed remotely. It is 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. Quantum Path was developed from the ground up to meet the requirements of seamless connectivity. Its service assurance tool can dynamically monitor the local ICT and Wi-Fi networks, quality of service of the wider broadband/mobile networks, and data and voice performance at the 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.

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By Stuart Waine

Director of Research & Development at Spry Fox networks