How Healthcare Providers Can Take Advantage of IoT

A robust and secure infrastructure can usher in IoT initiatives that help better manage services for patients and families.

Internet of Things, Healthcare

Healthcare organizations get it: Managing a hospital or medical office demands efficiency.

As the healthcare business consolidates, with hospitals merging to become larger care organizations and individual practices also joining healthcare networks, the desire to gain business efficiency is key to long-term success. And leveraging the internet of things can be an effective way to gain efficiencies across the span of departments and teams within a healthcare facility.

Here are four key strategic points to consider when plotting an IoT road map:

1: Plan for What’s Ahead, Not What’s Happening Right Now

When planning technology infrastructure, future-proof the investment by thinking ahead at least 10 years to accommodate for unplanned needs and emerging tech, says Val Loh, a principal for New York-based engineering firm Syska Hennessy Group.

“When we do the design for a building, we want to make sure that we’ve specified a cabling infrastructure that can support a 20-year technology road map,” Loh says. “It could be going from 1 gigabyte to 100 GB.” 

A speedy and resilient network will be critical to support IoT initiatives. For example, if a future project seeks to add important location-tracking sensors to all mobile IT carts or gather data from its network of printers, a hospital could find its work hamstrung by latency issues on its network.

At the new David H. Koch Center at New York-Presbyterian, Syska Hennessy outfitted the building with cabling and networking to handle future traffic at higher internet speeds than today’s. The firm also installed cellular repeaters to support 5G service since technologies for the new standard are expected to become commercially available widely in the next two to three years.

2: Make Changes That Drive Up Efficiencies 

One of the key metrics that healthcare facilities use to measure effectiveness is patient throughput. That requires keeping up on busy schedules and not falling behind. IoT can help through the use of wayfinding apps that let patients navigate complex campuses or buildings so they arrive when and where they are supposed to. 

A wayfinding app on a user’s smartphone takes advantage of the device’s native mapping function and receives inputs from beacons throughout a healthcare facility or campus. The app then serves up information to help the user move from location to location and get to their destinations quicker and with less reliance on hospital staff.

On the back end, the healthcare organization can gather data to study patient traffic, identify bottlenecks and even tap into near-real-time data to improve services as delays creep in.

Setting up this system comes with some challenges to keep in mind.

“It requires doing a robust wireless assessment from a density perspective and understanding where you might have some soft spots in hard-to-reach areas near stairwells or in areas with lead in the walls, such as a radiology department,” says Troy Yoder, global health solutions manager for Cisco Systems. “A hospital’s a very dense environment, with floors stacked on top of floors, and it’s a difficult wireless environment to get right.” 

Once the system is in place, however, the gain in efficiency and information can lead to improvements with wide-ranging effects. 

3: Keep Track of Assets with More Precision

Another key business metric for healthcare facilities is asset management. Medical organizations want to get the most out of the expensive equipment they buy. IoT can reduce the burden on manual practices, Yoder says.

Once an organization has implemented a dense wireless infrastructure, it can use IoT to monitor every cubic inch of space and track assets using video tracking and radio-frequency identification sensors, Yoder says.

But IoT isn’t only useful for the expensive equipment – it can help track consumables in your facility as well. Sensors can track everything from bathroom soap dispensers to printer ink and create a complete overlay of assets and data that multiple teams manage. With IoT data, a healthcare system’s IT and facilities teams can provide near-real-time reports on maintenance and line-of-business needs throughout the hospital. 

As an organization expands its use of IoT for asset management, it also must plan for growth in storage needs and how to manage those data stores over time. 

“A hospital’s a very dense environment, with floors stacked on top of floors, and it’s a difficult wireless environment to get right.”

4: Make Security Paramount

With all IoT initiatives, security must remain an important planning and implementation factor, Cisco’s Yoder says. Not only must patient data be kept secure from cybercriminals who attempt ransomware and other attacks, but healthcare providers must also ensure that data privacy protections comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

What that means, Yoder says, is that healthcare IT teams must ensure logical walls exist between the guest network, the employee network and the network for medical devices. Known as microsegmentation, such partitioned network security means that IoT sensors can run on the same network as other infrastructure components.

“Your security strategy truly needs to be end to end, and you must build as much defense as you can into the network itself,” Yoder says. The ability to microsegment users and services into groups with specific access privileges will be increasingly important, he says, as will the ability to minimize and quarantine any attack that manages to get through.

Managing security in IoT environments requires integration of teams across the healthcare organization, Syska Hennessy’s Loh says.

“The facility managers need to be in lockstep with the IT department, and the IT department needs to be in lockstep with the security department,” he says. “When technologies get deployed — whether security, HVAC or IT — they have to be able to be interoperable to make them both effective and secure.”