The Way Business Is Moving published by
Issue Date: March 2008

Netcare networks

1 March 2008

Network Healthcare Holdings (Netcare) is in the process of implementing state-of-the-art hospital networks with NETGEAR and Proxim equipment.
South African hospital group, Netcare, has designed a dynamic hospital network architecture that is being rolled out at facilities throughout the group.
The network has been designed to provide different hospital divisions with dedicated connectivity, while allowing for transmission between divisional networks to create a fully integrated healthcare environment. These networks, therefore, demand the highest standards of security and reliability.
Netcare consists of hospitals and specialised medical units. Every healthcare service is covered within the group, from major organ transplants to the latest diagnostic procedures. The group prides itself on using the best equipment and skills available in the world, maintained through ongoing investment and training. Technology plays a vital role within the group and must be both reliable and secure as hospitals deal with sensitive patient information and, of course, lives can depend on the technology used in the hospitals.
As with most businesses, information systems in hospitals traditionally existed in silos with little to no integration between different systems. Times have changed and just as other businesses need to address integration, hospitals have to consider moving towards service orientation and cohesive environments. In fact, with the sophisticated equipment used by hospitals all going online, healthcare facilities today represent some of the most network-dependent environments in the world.
Keeping it together
In keeping up with the times and incorporating modern equipment into the Netcare Group, it became necessary to design a specialised hospital network that could be deployed at sites throughout South Africa and enable Netcare hospitals with the required integration capability.
"In the hospital environment there is a diverse variety of equipment," says Flippie Coetser, healthcare technology specialist for the Netcare Group. "These range from lab and infusion devices to patient monitoring equipment. Netcare has separated these devices into 12 categories."
Flippie Coetser, healthcare technology specialist for the Netcare Group
Flippie Coetser, healthcare technology specialist for the Netcare Group
Coetser decided that the best way to accommodate the diverse systems within the hospital would be to establish virtually separate networks, one for each category of system.
"By establishing a virtual local area network (VLAN) for each category, it is possible to use the same network hardware without compromising safety. In order for information to be exchanged between these dedicated networks, VLAN routing is required," he explains. "For example, a patient's details might need to be transferred from the hospital information system to the patient monitoring system."
Key to the success of such a deployment is controlling the flow of information between networks. Coetser says that only specified items are allowed to send information between specific networks and Netcare decided to make use of access control lists to achieve this. The network would also be configured to allow for seamless transfers between wired and wireless connectivity. Backbone connectivity would be configured to allow for one gigabit per second speeds and in a ring configuration to allow for better redundancy.
"There are huge cost benefits to be gained from the use of virtual networks," says Coetser. "Traditionally it would be necessary to establish separate physical networks for each category of system, whereas now it is possible to segment a single network according to requirements."
Security and reliability
This is an intricate network architecture that would require the best available infrastructure to be successful. Switches and wireless access points would be required that offered high security along with the flexibility to be configured in accordance with Netcare's requirements. And, of course, reliability is key for systems in an environment where people's lives are at stake.
This led Coetser to select Duxbury Networking's NETGEAR switches and Proxim wireless access points.
"It was decided to use NETGEAR FSM7326P network switches from Duxbury Networking," affirms Coetser. "These are layer 3 switches and are compatible with our requirements for a gigabit backbone, with peripheral devices being connected at 100 Mbps. Netcare chose NETGEAR switches, not only because they were a perfect fit for the requirements, but also because they offer high value for money as well as something which very few vendors can claim: a lifetime warranty. Another advantage is that the FSM7326P supports power over Ethernet, which eliminates the need for power outlets for the wireless access points.
"The NETGEAR switches are also simple to manage," he adds. "They provide an intuitive web interface for configuration that saves a lot of time."
For wireless access points, Coetser says that Netcare chose the Proxim AP700, also from Duxbury Networking. Key to this decision is the device's capacity to handle sixteen virtual LANs, as Netcare would require twelve to be configured on the device.
"All our physiological patient monitoring servers are connected to NETGEAR GSM7312 switches," states Coetser. "These are 12-port one gigabit switches that offer high value for money and the highest possible Ethernet data transfer rates."
Coetser says that Netcare reviewed many case studies in planning for these network deployments. Both Proxim and NETGEAR had been used in medical environments internationally, which further complemented the decision to go with Duxbury Networking.
Next-generation healthcare
The network was piloted at two of the Netcare Group's hospitals: Alberlito in KwaZulu-Natal and Blaauwberg Hospital in the Western Cape.
"These sites have been running for four months with no down-time," says Coetser. "While they have been running in isolation, the system has been designed for the future integration of hospitals within the group and the plan is to connect all Netcare sites in the near future."
Following a successful pilot phase, the network architecture is now being deployed throughout the group and has already been implemented at the Linksfield Hospital in Johannesburg.
Using this advanced network architecture, the Netcare Group is now better equipped than ever for next-generation hospital equipment which enables advanced healthcare applications and ultimately increases the effectiveness of hospitals.
"Patient monitors are now connected wirelessly thanks to this network," says Coetser. "This provides hospital staff with realtime patient-life critical information which is transmitted to a central station in the ICU. This allows hospital staff to continuously monitor patients, even when mobile."
Another example of the network in action is when pathology results are sent to the hospital remotely using data connectivity from Vodacom, and are then routed to specific virtual LANs within the hospital.
"And this all happens securely," says Coetser. "So patients can rest assured that their information is safe."
The fact that third parties can deliver information directly into the hospital network saves time - and paper.
"This architecture represents a new concept in hospital networking and offers huge business value. For only a fraction more than a traditional network would have cost, Netcare is able to implement a scalable, virtualised network environment that caters for the entire hospital environment."

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