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Failover internet connection and strategy: A healthcare IT must-have

March 5, 2020

Have you ever asked, “What will happen if my hospital loses internet connection?”

The current digital underpinnings of the modern healthcare system are a mix of both on-site and cloud-based software applications. As data security and compliance becomes increasingly complex to manage, many organizations are moving their applications to cloud-based hosting platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google, or IBM. While cloud computing in healthcare has been applauded by industry experts and widely adopted by IT professionals, some remain concerned over moving mission-critical applications to the cloud.

A common question is, “What will happen if we lose internet connection?”

The answer lies in your enterprise failover strategy—a healthcare IT must-have to take advantage of the benefits of cloud-native solutions. So, what is a failover internet connection and why do you need one?

What is a failover internet connection?

Put simply, a failover connection is a backup connection to the internet in case your hospital’s primary connection goes down. The goal of the enterprise failover strategy is to ensure 100% access to mission-critical applications, ensuring patient safety remains unaffected by outages.

An enterprise failover strategy typically encompasses several connection types, delivered by several carriers. In addition, it generally includes failover switches and software management tools to automate the process of failover and ensure business continuity.

Why does your healthcare organization need a failover internet connection?

Modern healthcare organizations use the support of cloud-based applications in almost every aspect of their business. Access to the internet has, in a way, become like that of electricity—you just expect it to work without fail. Like generators, having back-up internet connections is a must-have for all healthcare facilities. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. Patient safety

It goes without saying that all motivations to establish a failover strategy are centered on patient safety. With the complexity of a modern interconnected healthcare system, communication to outside networks is essential for maintaining patient safety. As the push continues towards digitalization of healthcare records, test results, and patient encounters, paper is less and less an option—and access to mission-critical applications is a matter of life and death.

2. Uninterrupted communications

Communication is essential to a healthcare facility, and all applications centered around communication should be labeled as mission-critical. If a facility’s internet connection is down, a failover connection will allow critical communications to work seamlessly. Without network access, vital activities like code alerts, critical order results, consultations between physicians, transfers of medical records, or orders for life-saving medication could be affected. Emergency units are especially delicate departments as they typically communicate with outside entities to coordinate patient admission and arrival.

3. Financial considerations

Though the cost of a connectivity break-down depends on many factors, including the length of downtime and organization-specific systems, several financial and administrative transactions will likely suffer without a failover strategy. For example, no connectivity could mean loss of patient appointments, time lost for your collections department to bring in payments, the ability for patients to pay their bills online, and may slow down claims processing.

Your failover internet connection strategy

1. Determine mission-critical applications

As part of a good failover strategy, the organization must clearly identify their mission-critical applications and systems. Start by identifying the applications whose failure or disruption could result in serious impact—for your organization, patients, or during a catastrophic event. Of course, not all applications are mission critical, and different businesses and industries have different mission-critical systems.

For example, processing payments is mission-critical for an e-commerce organization like Amazon. However, for a hospital, processing payments is only business-critical and applications that directly affect patient safety are most important. First identify mission-critical applications and ensure the failover strategy addresses those before proceeding to business-critical applications.

2. Use shared responsibility to your advantage

Cloud-based hosting platforms like AWS, Google, and Microsoft Azure are prominent in cloud-computing due, in part, to “shared responsibility.” Meaning, cloud providers and their customers share the responsibility of data security. The cloud providers monitor and regulate cloud security, while end users ensure their own environments are secure.

Cloud platform providers are continuously monitoring and adapting to vulnerabilities, and while many healthcare IT groups are sophisticated, they don’t have the same resources to combat vulnerabilities and attacks as the multibillion-dollar enterprises whose reputations are staked on security.

By moving elements to the cloud and taking the next step of building components natively to the cloud, organizations can leverage the standards of cloud providers as part of their security and compliance strategy.

Rely on the security of your cloud provider when developing your failover strategy. Proceed with caution with local survivability components where data is cached on a local server for emergency access. By caching data locally, a healthcare system opens itself up to potential hackings—leaving the system in the same potentially vulnerable position it was in previously with on-site applications.

3. Consider all your connectivity options

From fiber to 5G, there are now several connectivity options in the marketplace for organizations to choose from, and each should be considered for your failover strategy. When choosing a failover connection, it is important to compare its availability to your primary connection. For example, if your emergency connection is often slow and unreliable, it might not be useful if your primary network connection goes down.

Also make sure your failover connection isn’t on the same carrier as your primary connection. If they are, they could both be down at the same time when the carrier has an issue. However, if your facility doesn’t have access to a different carrier, you can use a different technology to connect to the carrier. Finally, it’s important to consider a failover connection that has a comparable bandwidth with the primary connection to ensure business continuity throughout the outage.

Technologies to consider for your backup connections

1. Fiber-optic

This is your best option for your primary network service when it’s available. It is the fastest medium and has the highest bandwidths. However, fiber-optic is not available to everyone, and is mainly installed in major cities in dense office complexes.

2. Cable

Cable is your best option for low cost and reliability. It can offer you the best backup if your primary internet medium is fiber-optic.

3. Traditional copper

Copper lines offer network access to millions of people. The phone network was, however, built to transmit audio waves, not data. While reliable, bandwidth can be limited with this medium.

4. Wireless

If your business is positioned close to a network distribution point, wireless technology might be a suitable option for you. Wireless networks provide options such as 3G, 4G, and 5G, which are great options for a backup connection.

The rise in cloud computing has, in many ways, created vast opportunities for healthcare organizations to focus on more mission-critical activities. With that, however, comes the concern of “what happens when the internet goes down?” Companies such as AWS, Google, IBM, and Microsoft have created highly-resilient, self-healing infrastructure for customers to leverage and reduce burdens on IT groups. Organizations that leverage the cloud must recognize their role in ensuring resiliency by creating an enterprise internet failover strategy to maximize patient safety during connection outages.

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By Tim Tindle, Chief Information Officer
Tim Tindle is the chief information officer at Spok. He has over 35 years of information technology experience. Tindle served as CIO at Harris Health System, a $1.5 billion-dollar integrated delivery system. He has also held executive roles at ANATEC Information Services (acquired by NORRELL Information Services in 1996), and at Compaq Computer Corporation. He was part of the team that developed the company’s original portable computer.