The heartbeat of hospitals

Why healthcare networks urgently need to evolve

Information exchange and data are fundamental to the smooth running of every organisation. For healthcare, and hospitals in particular, they’re mission critical.

The communications networks are of fundamental importance too – now and even more so in the future. Victor Heinisch, Innovation Consultant, Vodafone UK, explores some of the issues and challenges as healthcare becomes increasingly connected.

Definitions and telesurgeons

There’s a lot of hype about 5G and the amazing things it enables – like remote operations or telesurgery. Imagine a future when there’s always a surgeon available. No matter where they’re based, they can link straight to the operating theatre. Some of the 5G examples in this issue are just as forward-thinking – from connected living to the many conditions and illnesses that can be self-managed without visits to the outpatient department. But before we get there, some basic building blocks need to be put in place. And these all rest on a foundation of the latest generation of network technologies: 5G.

Mission-critical Mobile Private Networks

5G is possible through the public network and a mobile private network. For healthcare, that would mean a completely separate 5G network – extra secure and dedicated to the hospital and its staff. MPNs have lots to offer. There’s massive 5G bandwidth for many more device connections than 4G. They’re high-speed, low-latency and future-proof so they can provide the communications backbone for future innovations. Traditional networks just cannot keep up. Ethernet requires fixed cables which create many installation headaches and obstacles in a hospital setting. And WiFi is way less secure and reliable than cellular connections. On cybersecurity, data on the MPN doesn’t have to leave the hospital. And when you add other technologies including artificial intelligence, analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud and edge computing, you can create a comprehensive and secure infrastructure that’s essential for a 5G-enabled hospital. MPNs enable connected healthcare. So teams of healthcare practitioners can collaborate, communicate and access the data they need, when they need it. Crucially, for patient outcomes that could mean the ability to make decisions or take actions in the moment that are the difference between life and death.

Why not WiFi?

On one hand, WiFi has been a wonderful way to connect hospitals. Patients and staff have seen huge benefits of being able to contact one another and readily share information. However, there are big questions over the universal use of WiFi and its security weaknesses. First, WiFi uses public internet connections. In other words, the data and information (which might include patient data) on a WiFi network routinely travels outside the clinical setting to offsite data centres. And while files, data and workloads may be encrypted, the risks of breach increase every time information travels to and from its source destination. Secondly, many patients and staff in hospitals are using social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp to keep in touch. Users typically allow these apps to access all contacts on a device. For hackers and ‘bad actors’, this is a weak link they can exploit. And much like the R (reproduction) rate of viruses that we’re all now very familiar with, the damage of hacking one device can quickly become exponential. For each contact hacked, a whole new set of contacts become targets. So, for staff sharing patient data on WhatsApp, their intention to provide the best and fastest care could also spell significant dangers. Thirdly, WiFi uses unlicensed radio spectrum. By definition, unlicensed means the communication happening over WiFi technology is uncontrolled, offering no Quality of Service nor a performance guarantee. As such, WiFi is prone to interference. Like Bluetooth headphones, for example, which can momentarily disrupt another device’s connection. Also, in theory, a hospital WiFi network could be easily disrupted by setting up multiple networks with the same name (legal under current laws). 5G MPNs solve all these security issues and can guarantee performance. And being a cellular technology, 5G operates on a regulated, controlled and licensed spectrum.

From here to connected healthcare

Here’s a final prediction: 10 years from now, every hospital in the UK will have a 5G MPN network that delivers core healthcare services and communications, while connecting critical medical devices and applications. Getting there will require significant investment in the healthcare communications infrastructure, particularly for older hospital buildings and among all the other healthcare priorities. That’s why it’s critical to ensure the security, capacity and performance of the NHS network of the future meets the exponential demands that will be placed on it. And that’s where 5G MPNs can help.

Author Victor Heinisch Innovation Consultant Vodafone Business UK

As Innovation Consultant for Vodafone Business UK, Victor is focused on enterprise innovation and transformation, primarily through 5G and EDGE. His experience spans a wide range of industries including healthcare, transport and manufacturing, finding ways to transform businesses and looking at how the new wave of innovation and its application can positively impact society.

Related articles

Imagine if surgeons could be transported into operating theatres virtually. That’s exactly what the recent trials between University Hospital of Wales and University Hospital Llandough have achieved... read more >

A recent strategy report, commissioned by Vodafone, shows a strong appetite for an array of connected health services. ‘Better health, connected health’ charts changing attitudes and greater openness – among patients and practitioners – toward technology in healthcare... read more >

While in-depth knowledge is key to becoming a medical practitioner, a vital part of the training involves learning on the job with real patients, something that’s not been possible to do in the lecture theatre... read more >