Reducing Healthcare IT Costs with Software-Defined Networks

An American Hospital Association study estimates financial losses for U.S. based hospitals at a staggering $320 billion for the year 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has significantly impacted IT spending and forced IT leaders to explore new ways to reduce the cost of IT while ensuring care continuity.

Reducing “keep the lights on” costs and positioning your organization for the future are essential criteria for healthcare IT strategic planning. Healthcare organizations continue to be plagued with expensive and inefficient technology that contributes to high cost of ownership as well as refresh.

Proactive steps such as conducting infrastructure assessments, rationalizing hardware and software, and exploring new technology architectures can lead to more efficient IT operations. One key area of modernization for today’s hospitals is Software-Defined Networking technology, also known as SD-LAN and SD-WAN. This is especially important given the massive shift to digital health solutions as well as remote workers.

Exponential Growth of Mobile Devices

In our COVID-19 world, mobile devices are more important than ever and continue to multiply –  not only Apple and Android smartphones but also include Internet of Things (IoT) devices that include commercial devices such as cameras and wearables, medical devices for remote monitoring, and other sensors and instruments.

These devices are everywhere and, in most cases, expect uninterrupted and ubiquitous connectivity. Traditionally, MPLS-enabled cloud services have been the foundational platform for many of these devices. High-performance broadband Internet connections, coupled with new cellular services such as 5G that promise increased reliability and performance, make this possible.

Most healthcare organizations have a primarily wired LAN, with a WiFi-based network providing access to the edge. Security and reliability are built into network design. Network engineers have experience providing uninterrupted and ubiquitous access, but in many cases it’s built on End-Of-Life network architecture designed for much different access scenarios. The digital transformation that the pandemic has sprung on the healthcare industry poses significant and complex challenges to enterprise networks.

Enter the Software-Defined Network

In most cases, digital transformation requires a redesign of infrastructure. Antiquated network architecture requires CIOs to grapple with their costly legacy of manual configurations and potentially significantly higher downtimes. Modernized software-defined technologies on the LAN and the WAN present efficiencies and are unencumbered.

Software-based network design automates the heavy lifting of network configuration, management, and orchestration. This presents healthcare enterprises with an opportunity to move away from the manual process of configuring individual network devices and appliances at the core and on a site-by-site basis. It also allows CIOs to reduce network management costs.

Ten key factors make software-defined technologies such as SD-WAN and SD-LAN an essential future strategy for today’s hospitals.

Automated administration. Automating complex network design and administration functions can not only reduce the time required for network implementation and maintenance a network. It also reduces the defects and human errors that can lead to performance, reliability, and security issues.

Improved application performance. The nature of SD-LAN and SD-WAN is to abstract the underlying transport layer. This empowers network and application IT administrators to define design rules and polices that focus on application performance, which is necessary to optimize performance.

Optimized WAN performance. Even with cheap, expansive bandwidth, latency is still a major factor when delivering application services to customers. As large clinical suites like Epic and Cerner explore the use of public cloud hosting services, SD-LAN and SD-WAN solutions can provide a major advantage when deploying high-performing network and application services.

Cloud services integration. SaaS is a reliable way to access essential applications at a fraction of the cost and complexity of traditional software. From Microsoft Office 365 to Salesforce, SaaS is a productivity staple at many organizations. The traffic flows of cloud-based software create major issues for MPLS WANs, which is where SD-WAN provides a clear advantage.

Distributed security. Extending security awareness from the data center to the edge, and building within the software defined firewalls that integrate into security solutions, enables network administrators and security engineers to work closely on a comprehensive secure network design.

Simpler configurations. Antiquated WANs are notorious for being complex to set up and configure. Connecting a new clinic or ambulatory site can be a time-consuming and expensive ordeal that requires multiple site visits. SD-WAN makes such processes much more straightforward: Configurations can be performed in software housed in a centralized console in just minutes. Branches also benefit because they don’t to have technical personnel on site to handle issues during WAN implementation and maintenance.

Multiple connectivity options. The software layer of SD-WAN ensures traffic is automatically directed over the best links available. Meanwhile, traffic is protected by integrations with cloud security services, and by end-to-end encryption from gateways between MPLS and SD-WAN infrastructure. This gives you a network that's economical, high-performing, and secure.

More reliable hosted VoIP. Solutions such as hosted VoIP and unified communications platforms have become essential within healthcare organizations. These applications can have demanding requirements, especially in a patient care situation. SD-WAN management solutions constantly measure latency, jitter, and packet loss across the network to evaluate which paths are ideal for hospital-based workloads at any given moment.

A future-proof network. SD-WAN and SD-LAN can be composed of any combination of 4G/5G, MPLS, Internet, or Ethernet service. This allows for rapid deployments and increased bandwidth options. By utilizing all the resources available, including low-cost ISPs, SD-WAN can dynamically select from a cost-efficient assortment of public Internet connections and private links. Organizations no longer need to continuously upgrade their bandwidth to ensure a reliable connection with SD-WAN.

How Healthcare IT Leaders Can Help

Software-defined networking enables healthcare organizations to harness virtualization, enabling real network agility while driving down total cost of ownership. If your organization is looking to modernize its network, Healthcare IT Leaders can provide SD-LAN readiness assessment, design, implementation, and managed services. Our extensive knowledge of Epic, Cerner and other healthcare applications joined with a deep infrastructure experience can provide unique insight on both the network and security designs, ROI, and TCO. Contact us today to speak with one of our experts.

Healthcare IT Leaders CTO Ken Bradberry is a seasoned technologist with 25+ years’ experience focused on innovative security, architectural and technical solutions for healthcare organizations.