As more and more healthcare providers and systems across the country expand into telemedicine, CIOs and IT departments of healthcare organizations are quickly uncovering the complications that come with setting up a productive and successful telehealth network. How much bandwidth do you need? What equipment will you need? How will our workflow be affected? What are the best practices for IT departments when tackling a telemedicine network setup?
Let’s explore all these questions below in our latest blog post dedicated to best practices for setting up telehealth networks.
Access to Broadband/Bandwidth
The first network-related issue that needs to be addressed before a telehealth rollout is bandwidth. Everyone knows how distracting and disruptive a video conference call can be when audio is out of sync with the video or when audio can’t be understood at all due to slow bandwidth speeds. In an instance of telemedicine, these disruptions can have serious medical consequences, especially in tele-ICU and tele-ER care cases. You need to ensure your organization has access to the bandwidth speeds necessary to transmit audio and data.
Needed bandwidth speeds can vary heavily depending on multiple factors, including:
- Number of users
- User locations
- Real-time transactions
- Storage technology
- Other medical software such as EHRs
These multiple factors are the reason why estimated bandwidth requirements is a complex problem. While the FCC has published minimum speeds necessary based on healthcare organization type and number of physicians, you can only truly know what will work through pilot testing. During testing, do not fall victim to one of the most common oversights where only a fraction of telehealth carts or stations are tested at once. Make sure to test the maximum number of stations that would be running at one time or monitor the scheduling of each telemedicine session so adjustments can be made if bandwidth requirements should change.
Additionally, thorough testing needs to be done with Wi-Fi networks if they are being utilized. Dead spots and network interference from concrete walls or other medical equipment (such as X-rays) can be easily missed when testing is done in a controlled environment. Once the network is up and running, the IT department must implement ongoing network maintenance and monitoring with alerts set up if key indicators are at risk such as high latency or low signal strength. Networks are dynamic systems; therefore, the reliability of one day does not predict its reliability the next.
One of the most difficult obstacles healthcare providers, particularly in rural areas, face is access to these broadband networks. There are several different ways to obtain access to broadband, including:
- Digital Subscriber Line
- Cable Modem
- Broadband over Power Line
In many cases, rural healthcare providers must get creative in order to build and design the telecommunications network that aligns with their telehealth goals. Make sure you discuss your needs with your ISP to explore all options available to you.
IT & Medical Tools
The greatest broadband network in the world doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the devices and technology to transmit your telemedicine services. Telemedicine equipment is going to vary heavily on the specific type of telemedicine you’re implementing; however, most telehealth networks contain a combination of the following:
- Software (EHRs, Revenue Management, etc.)
- Telehealth carts (heart rate monitors, blood pressure cuffs, glucose meters, etc.)
- Examination Cameras
The amount of technology and medical devices is endless and while you can piecemeal your own telemedicine technology network together, you significantly increase the risk of missing critical areas of security using this approach. There are a range of telemedicine equipment companies that can provide the solutions you need. Consumer-based equipment can be cheaper and user-friendly but may not contain the security and dependability features you require, while business-level companies can provide custom, industry-specific telemedicine solutions at a higher price. It is up to your organization to find the right balance for your specific telemedicine strategy and goals.
Additionally, IT departments must have internal or external access to technical support staff to help when their telehealth technology goes down. Does your organization have a backup plan when the technology fails? Make sure those procedures are ironed out before going live.
Trade organization and other healthcare providers within your industry are great resources that should to be taken advantage of during the research and implementation phases. Peer organizations that have already implemented telehealth systems can provide their trials and tribulations with valuable and honest feedback on the process.
Clinical Services Workflow
The next step healthcare organizations must address is how the implementation of telemedicine will impact their internal processes and workflow. This is one of the most critical steps that is often overlooked in organizations. Extensive training needs to be done with staff who are in charge of using and administering telehealth technology, and processes need to be developed for situations when issues arise. Here are a couple of resources to get your research started:
- Telemedicine Success Linked to Workflow, Rather Than Technology
- Five Telemedicine Workflow Questions You Need to Answer
- Optimizing Your Telemedicine Workflow
Lastly and most importantly, healthcare organizations must consider the financial costs and expected ROI of a telemedicine services expansion. In a world of decreasing reimbursements and higher operating costs, rural healthcare providers need all the financial help they can get. There are a couple of government funding programs dedicated to helping healthcare providers pay for networks and telemedicine equipment upgrades, including:
- FCC’s Universal Service Fund- Rural Health Care Program
- USDA’s Distance Learning & Telemedicine Grant Program
- HRSA Telehealth Programs
- Telehealth Network Grant Program (TNGP)
- Telehealth Resource Center Grant Program (TRC)
- Evidence-Based Tele-Emergency Network Grant Program (EB TNGP)
- Rural Veterans Health Access Program (RVHAP)
- Licensure Portability Grant Program (LPGP)
- Rural Child Poverty Telehealth Network Grant Program (RCPTNGP)
- Funding Broadband Enabled Health Care
Each program has different eligibility requirements, funding mechanisms, and applications processes; therefore, make sure you do your research to see if your particular organization is not only eligible but has the capacity and resources to apply.
Looking for an ISP partner to help your organization prepare for telemedicine? At TeleQuality, we specialize in building and designing custom telecommunications networks exclusively for healthcare providers. We can also assist your organization in finding funding to help fund your network upgrades. Contact us today to get started!