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Challenges and Resolution that IT Organizations Face Supporting During COVID-19!

Challenges IT Organizations Face in Supporting Healthcare Environments During COVID-19 and How To Resolve Them!

The past few months have presented unprecedented challenges to IT organizations supporting Healthcare environments. Hospitals have seen exponential surges in both patients and demand for medical equipment, even to the point of building temporary hospitals in parking lots and convention centers.

Although this surge is presently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this situation is not entirely unique in healthcare. While not to this present worldwide scale, hospitals and clinics have experienced rapid increases in activity during natural and man-made disasters, political unrest, and minor outbreaks of disease.

In these crisis situations, behind the front-line practitioners is a team of network managers, engineers, and technicians who are tasked with delivering the infrastructure which supports critical medical instrumentation. High availability, high security, high performance, and high mobility are essential to help practitioners deliver quality patient care, while maintaining data privacy and compliance with patient information. At these times, mistakes in network deployment simply cannot be made, even when new and present facilities need to be rapidly expanded to support the influx of patients. This is all the more difficult when third-party contractors are involved due to non-standardized methods and insufficient knowledge transfer.

What specific challenges are faced by these organizations and how can IT managers stay ahead of the tremendous demands on their networks, especially during a crisis like COVID-19?

Let’s look at the top five.

1. Highly Distributed Network, Remote Troubleshooting

Healthcare environments typically encompass several large hospitals and hundreds of smaller clinics, which can include rapidly built field facilities. Network techs at remote sites are usually not as experienced as the core network engineering teams and often need help resolving more complex problems. Remote access to local toolsets that provide a picture of the wired and wireless environment, as well as active testing, is critical for rapid resolution.

As sites are expanded and temporary facilities are put into place, it is all the more necessary to equip network engineers to assist local technicians to expand, test, and validate the network using controlled methods and remote access.

After all, during a crisis there often is not enough time for network engineers to travel onsite to begin troubleshooting a problem.

The EtherScope nXG can be placed in the hands of a local technician to access a simple automated troubleshooting tool suite, including device discovery, TCP connectivity tests, application response time, throughput checks, and even PoE validation, while core engineers remotely access and analyze test results via a secure connection. When a complicated problem requires a packet capture, the analyzer can collect the traffic (at up to line-rate 10Gig speed), which can then be transferred to Link-Live for analysis by a central network engineer.

2. Quickly validating the network in temporary hospitals or expanded ICU wards

Field hospitals may have the most life-critical, high demand, no-room-for-error temporary networks in the world. Technicians are involved in rapidly installing and expanding the cabling, switching, routing, and wireless in these environments. This is all the more difficult when third-party contractors are involved due to non-standardized methods and knowledge transfer.

When networks are rapidly deployed, mistakes can be made. New connections need to be quickly and repeatably tested before they are connected to any medical instrumentation. In speedily deployed Wi-Fi, technicians need to check that only expected networks are present and that important devices are connected to the right SSID. This is especially true when competing networks are available in locations such as convention centers or urban centers.

Especially in temporary or expanded ICU wards where medical instrumentation must be wired for connectivity, precision with every jack, cable, termination, switch port and configuration could mean the difference between life or death.

Designed to fit this need, the LinkRunner AT and AirCheck G2 enable technicians and third-party contractors to have a precise workflow for validating and documenting every wired and wireless connection. With a simple AutoTest, they can check PoE, switch port configurations via LLDP/ CDP, connectivity to services and the cloud, end user response time of critical applications, and wireless network availability. The results can be automatically uploaded to Link-Live to ensure that they are saved and documented immediately after the test completes, and for team collaboration.

3. Finger pointing with Service Providers and Medical Instrumentation Vendors

Medical instrumentation in hospitals was not always designed to work over IP. Imaging equipment requires massive file transfers from the instrument to a central system to the bedside. Connectivity and performance problems are still common. When a problem strikes, it is very easy for the blame game to begin between network engineers, instrument vendors, and service providers.

Is it the instrument? The network? The server? The authentication process?

Network engineers struggle to clearly answer these questions as quickly as possible when a connectivity or performance problem strikes. They need to validate the path that traffic is taking through the network, test the available throughput, and ensure that the network is not to blame.

Using the EtherScope nXG, engineers can check that network latency, packet loss and throughput is not affecting communications to and from the instrumentation. The path analysis test enables technicians to visualize the logical path through layer two and three devices on the network (and to outside resources, such as vendor-provided central services), ensuring that traffic is not taking an unexpected turn. Core network service response time such as DNS, DHCP, and TCP connectivity can be measured to further validate any local issues before contacting the equipment vendor – or to push back on vendor finger-pointing.

4. Ensuring Wi-Fi network security for compliance and data privacy

Patients, visiting family, and other members of the general public stay in communication using Wi-Fi systems that are assumed to be separate from the core network. Is not difficult for a rogue AP to go undetected or an attacker to gain access to sensitive files, especially in a high-stress environment. Keeping a close eye on what networks are available, who is accessing them, and what systems users have access to is an absolute must. One hole in hospital cybersecurity can leave patient data wide open – a sure ticket to a front-page headline, or worse.

Visibility in the wireless environment is critical to assuring security of these networks and the data they carry. Engineers and technicians need automated tests that allow them to examine what devices are connecting, where they are connected, and what IT systems can be accessed. Simple, easy to interpret test results enable them to quickly respond when a suspect device is discovered.

Using the AirMapper feature of the EtherScope nXG, technicians can survey the wireless environment to visualize devices and channels across the floorplan. The Android OS allows for third party port scanning tools to be installed to check for device and service vulnerabilities. It will also help technicians quickly identify and physically locate rogue APs and other unwelcome devices in the building that may be giving access to private systems. Tools also help engineers ensure that devices are connecting to the correct network, and documenting the results. This is especially important in temporary hospitals with competing wireless neighbor networks for the public.

5. Documentation of Devices, Wi-Fi coverage, PoE and Connection Validation

Every network operations group has problems maintaining their documentation – who has the time to be proactive? How about a healthcare IT organization with high turnover during a crisis, or small team that struggles with day-to-day trouble tickets? Maintaining documentation in these scenarios is next to impossible. However, this doesn’t make documentation any less important. Network and device details can direct decisions that either help or hinder troubleshooting efforts, which make them critical to maintain.

Documenting network devices, connectivity, and test results is always a challenge, no matter what the size of the organization. During a crisis, it is even more difficult to keep network records up to date.

The entire NetAlly tool suite is designed with this challenge in mind. Each tool in the box has the ability to connect to the complimentary cloud-based Link-Live service, where site survey maps, device lists, wireless signal coverage data, connection tests, throughput results, and service response time measurements are cataloged and stored for use by the whole IT or biomed organizations, regardless of location. Even packet captures can be automatically stored and shared for joint collaboration in troubleshooting complex problems.


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