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Healthcare IT Teams Must Consider Today’s Technology Limitations When Planning for the Future

Hector Meza, Executive Sales Engineer, Zebra Technologies

If you think about the way healthcare was (successfully) managed for centuries, or even just a decade ago, you might wonder why practitioners are pushing so hard right now for the digitization of data or digitalization of workflows. Does patient care quality improve simply by transitioning to electronic medical records (EMR)? And will clinicians really make different decisions and drive better outcomes with real-time data? 

Though only time will tell the true impacts of modern technology tools, I believe everyone in the healthcare community will answer with a resounding “yes!” 

Around-the-clock access to digital data helps ensure all care team members understand patients’ histories and present status. In turn, every acute and non-acute provider becomes empowered to make the right diagnostic and care decisions for each patient, based on the “whole person” approach to healthcare – and a holistic view of current operations and community resources. In fact, hospitals that have approached the more advanced stages of the HIMSS Electronic Medical Record Adoption Model (EMRAM) report higher productivity and efficiency as measured by bed turnover rates, speed of patient transfers, patient experience ratings and similar performance key performance indicators (KPI). 

But connectivity to clinical information is not the only end game of healthcare modernization and, therefore, not IT’s only concern in 2022.  

The Growing Commonality Between Healthcare and Hospitality 

For the last two years, healthcare IT teams have been heads down trying to get technology systems online to support teleworking staff and telehealth services. There has also been a rush to mobilize all on-site staff, not just bedside nurses. In fact, Zebra’s latest Hospital Vision Study found that decision-makers plan to put mobile devices in the hands of all clinical and non-clinical employees this year in the hopes of improving communication, workflow efficiency, and the overall patient experience. It’s this last objective that is influencing many healthcare IT decisions in 2022, though, as the focus shifts away from reactive tech requirements and toward proactive planning. 

Historically, technology investments were primarily driven by the need to improve the clinician’s experience and capabilities. But healthcare providers are starting to recognize that it’s the patient experience that strongly influences “recovery and revenue.” Not to discount the impact that clinical interventions have on the long-term vitality of a patient or practice. It’s just that patients are becoming more inclined to choose a healthcare provider that offers more than just clinical services.  

Hospitals and medical buildings are evolving to pull in the community, and farmers markets, yoga classes and other community engagement initiatives are becoming more common to provide a more positive experience and to help promote a healthier lifestyle. So, when patients visit these facilities for medical support, they’re expecting elevated experiences. Big screen TVs and tablets streaming entertainment in private patient rooms, high-speed internet for visitors, and on-site consultations with remote specialists – once thought luxurious – are now becoming competitive standards for healthcare systems. 

If patients have the flexibility to choose their hospital, and the quality of care is deemed equivalent, they are going to consider other factors that impact their well-being before deciding where to check in. Decision-makers recognize this. It’s why billions of dollars are being spent each year redesigning older buildings or, in some cases, tearing down and rebuilding facilities. Modern healthcare requires a “whole person” approach – and an investment in improving the “whole experience.”  

Of course, any type of outward-facing overhaul is going to require some rearchitecting of behind-the-scenes operations, too. But therein lies the problem. The more that modern clinical and patient experiences become ingrained in – or dependent on – technology, the more IT teams are recognizing the limitations of healthcare’s infrastructure.  

Why We Can’t Completely Abandon the Past as We Move Forward 

There is a big push to migrate hospitals and clinics to newer wireless network technologies such as Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. However, there is a lot of existing technology across the healthcare community, like mobile computers, sensors, and printers – some of which may not work with a new Wi-Fi 6 or 5G networks. Does that mean healthcare providers should rip and replace these devices with newer ones? Not necessarily. There will always be a “next-gen” wireless network technology around the corner. There may even be some new ones this year. So, trying to catch up to the latest wireless connectivity standard isn’t the solution.  

That’s not to say clinical or operational hardware shouldn’t be upgraded right now. It’s just that such efforts shouldn’t be initiated solely to ensure compatibility with Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. Instead, requirements and investments should be driven by the need to maintain continuity of care, elevate the quality of care, and deliver on the expanded definition of “healthcare” at both the granular (facility) and holistic (community) levels. 

Another reason why IT must be more thoughtful in its approach to healthcare modernization this year: there may be some physical limitations to technology upgrades depending on the age, design and density of existing building infrastructure.  

When hospital teams look at technology upgrades, such as Wi-Fi 6 for example, they often find that the new access point needs to be installed 15 feet to the left of the old one. That one change could cost tens of thousands of dollars due to the construction support needed to drill into concrete walls and upgrade the conduit. This isn’t as simple as a plug-and-play component swap. That’s why some decision-makers are opting to tear down and rebuild facilities on their campuses. They’re finding that the changing nature of the healthcare experience and subsequent clinical and patient connectivity requirements really demand a fresh start.  

Does this mean it’s impossible to redesign and upgrade IT infrastructure within existing building infrastructure? No. It’s just important to consider whether fundamental changes can realistically be made to hardware, software, networks, and other technology systems so: 

  • data can be transported quickly and securely between disparate mobility platforms and information systems and distanced healthcare community members.  
  • patients and community members enjoy a luxury experience that supports their physical, mental and emotional well-being. 

What Could Hold Back Modernization – and What Could Help Accelerate IT 

They say there is no forward progress without setbacks, and I’m sure healthcare IT professionals will attest to that truth. But anticipating barriers can help us work around them so we hit fewer roadblocks on our journey to the new healthcare frontier.  

As IT teams spend 2022 planning for the future, it’s important to ask questions that ensure we… 

  • are not breaking the old with something new and cool. Though we’re always striving for greater workflow efficiency, labor utilization, and collaboration in clinical environments, we shouldn’t accept “disruption” for the sake of “innovation.” Hospitals are live, working facilities. They can’t be shut down for days, or even hours, so that IT installations can occur. We must find a way to migrate to modern switches and routers, replace access points, and connect fragmented information systems without interrupting clinical workflows and patient flows. We must also strive to train staff on new hardware and software tools without overwhelming them or hindering their ability to deliver the high-quality experiences that patients and community members expect and deserve.  
  • are not overtaxing networks and limiting staff capabilities for the sake of better patient experiences. Video streaming demands a lot of network bandwidth, and guest Wi-Fi services only compound the issue. Though it’s critical to provide patient entertainment and virtual care consultation options, it’s just as critical to ensure these high-volume, high-throughput activities don’t jam up, or bring down, the network that clinicians are also using to upload or download patient records, order labs and prescriptions, or control robotics automation tools used for surgeries.  
  • have the capacity to introduce automated workflows and real-time locationing or move to a more predictive care model. Even in healthcare systems where there is a more centralized operations model, healthcare information systems are still somewhat disparate across facilities or functions. The clinical workflow may be fully automated and running smoothly, but remain disjointed from ancillary workflows, such as billing, supply chain management and more – all of which directly impact a patient’s overall healthcare experience. And the truth is that we can’t really begin to think about proper workflow automation until we’re sure staff can even get “online” or make basic high-quality calls.  

In other words, expect to see 2022 healthcare IT discussions center on how to build out bandwidth in terms of wireless throughput and volume capacity as well as IT support structures. Teams will also be looking for creative, but effective, ways to bridge legacy infrastructure with new hardware, software and network platforms – without having to tear down entire buildings every time.  

From my perspective, collaboration between technology solution providers will be key, as joint innovation, validation, implementation, and support will be the only way to achieve a digitalized healthcare utopia in which patients receive the timely, quality care they need at every point of care. 

To learn more about ways you can upgrade your healthcare IT infrastructure to improve clinical and community experiences, click here.